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Saturday, 25 June 2011

Chamber delights at the Wigmore hall

Stephen Kovacevich 70th birthday concert
Wigmore Hall

Such great programming here, so it was a shame to see that the hall was only half full. We were spoiled by the artists here too - all of them truly extraordinary players.

First was cellist Truls Mork who joined Stephen Kovacevich for Beethoven's last cello sonata (op.102 no.2). It hardly needs to be said that this late work (1815) coming from his last period is one of the finest in the repertoire. The quiet poetry of the second movement, one of Beethoven's great late cantilenas, and the first true slow movement composed for cello and piano, came across particularly well here, Mork's tone focussed and rapt and finding a purpose that hadn't quite settled in the first movement. Mork is one of the world's greatest living cellists, his playing direct, unmannered, beautiful, technically immaculate, the tone burnished and full whilst never seeming strained.

The pair were then joined by violinist Philippe Graffin, not a name I recognised, but maybe the most impressive performer of the evening. Really brilliant violin playing: gutsy, full toned, stylish, passionate and so clear in intent and effect. Playing like this puts the listener completely at ease - there's never a question that anything will go wrong, and if it does, it's completely irrelevant. Indeed, one might say the same of Mork. Together they performed Brahms' Piano Trio no.3, a terse and wonderfully intense work, playing it as if it was the younger brother of the approximately contemporaneous double concerto - wonderfully energetic string playing, accompanied and cajoled by the stormy pianism of Stephen Kovacevich - a trio of players to savour.

After the interval, Philippe Graffin returned with a new pianist, Claire Désert for the fiendish Phantasy by Schoenberg, a late work from 1949. Again, Graffin played as if possessed, the violin lines pouring out with such ease and elan and with a rare passion that seemed to suit the music to a tee. If only Schoenberg was played like this more often, he might have a few more followers! At the end even he seemed surprised by his own playing staggering backwards as he did after the last note had sounded.

Next was Schoenberg's Kammersymphonie no.1 op.9 in Webern's arrangement for piano trio plus flute and clarinet, here provided by Juliette Hurel and Chen Halevi respectively, again both players of the highest calibre. This is an arrangement that requires true virtuosos, all parts being excruciatingly difficult, the playing here immaculate with the ensemble blending beautifully, especially in the gorgeous slow section. The playing was perhaps a bit unremittingly intense - a sensory overload from start to finish, and maybe a bit more contrast would have been welcome, but this is cavilling when the standard of the playing was so high. I'm not sure how worthwhile this arrangement is - it's certainly impressive and often very beautiful, but how often are five such able musicians really going to be assembled to do it justice - it becomes a bit of a herculean exercise in virtuosity. Finally Kovacevich rejoined the group along with another pianist, Marisa Gupta, Kovacevich this time playing chimes in a reduction of Debussy's Prélude a l'apres-midi d'un faune by David Matthews. Lovely as this was, it really did feel like something was missing this time, and the chimes were a bizarre and distracting addition. Even so, it was a lovely end to a magnificent evening of chamber music.

Peter Grimes

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Britten's opera Peter Grimes is one of the most moving in the repertory, and despite the fact that it was his first attempt at a full scale opera, and it certainly has its crudities and problems, it has since its first performance been universally recognised for what it is: a masterpiece. It's a work that requires no explanation or commentary almost - the message is so clear, the drama so brilliantly drawn, the music so perfectly wrought that it is its own explanation - and so I won't try to provide one.

This production by Willy Deckers (revival direction by Francois de Carpentries) strips the work of overt references to small town life, englishness and the sea, the intention being to focus on the extraordinary psychological power of the work and make the crowd versus individual theme more abstract and universal. The stark chiaroscuro of the set seems rooted in the dense atmosphere of the score and though this production veers perhaps a little close to Regie tropes for comfort (enormous diagonally painted panels), supported by the superb lighting it works very well at what it tries to achieve. Choreography of crowd scenes is often very impressive and as a concept the whole thing is well thought out and executed.

But actually this stripping away of context I think vitiates the drama - the oppressive small minded village hysteria simply becomes hateful mob antics which I found far less disturbing than Britten's original vision: lots of individuals, normal but with their own puculiarities, are galvinised and united by their hatred of a single man. In this production the townspeople aren't established as "normal" so their rejection and persecution of Grimes and Ellen Orford isn't so jarring - they just all seem like unequivocal badies from the start. This was also the cause of another problem: it took quite a while for the individual character portraits of the towns people to come through too - not until Act II did they really establish themselves.

Still, this production is powerful in its obvious way and I found myself extremely moved several times during the evening. Unfortunately almost none of the singers were up to the vocal demands of their roles. The exceptions were Matthew Best who made a powerful and commanding Swallow in the prologue and Jonathan Summers as Balstrode who sung beautifully here (and I was very pleased with myself for recognising his voice from the Grimes excerpt on the a CD of opera scenes which Renée Fleming made in 1997). Catherine Wyn-Rogers as auntie and her nieces all acted very well and sung mostly well, though the quartet with Ellen Orford From the gutter strained them all. Jane Henschel is a fantastic character mezzo and was really horrible as Mrs. Sedley. Martyn Hill can't actually sing it seems, he just bellowed through his lines as the Reverend Horace Adams, but he was still good and made a horrifying rector.

Vocally the real problems were the two leads though. Ellen Orford's music is extraordinarily beautiful in this opera, and requires an extremely good lyric soprano to do it justice. Amanda Roocroft is a magnificent actress as we've seen in her assumption of the Janacek heroines at ENO, but unfortunately vocal problems persist. She once had an extremely beautiful full lyric voice, and while it remains this in the warm middle voice, the top is strident and metallic, rather than blooming and full. The quiet top B flat in the Embroidery aria wasn't even attempted, instead she just stopped halfway through the interval and sang the line from where she stopped. Ben Heppner is well past his prime, and is completely beset by vocal problems - he can't sing quietly, all wide intervals are heavily scooped into, everywhere there are tuning issues, the top is extremely strained, the line bulges as he applies force about half a second into each note. Apparently he's doing Tristan with Stemme next month at the Bayerische Staatsoper - something to dread.

I usually can't stand singers who aren't up to scratch technically. But I forgive this production's extreme vocal shortcomings (some of the worst this season) because it did something that few other shows at the ROH did this year: it moved me. The acting from both leads, especially Roocroft, was so engaging, realistic and touching that I didn't at all mind that they couldn't sing the music as Britten intended. This was a thrilling piece of drama, I felt involved, I cared about the characters. Compare this to Butterfly also on at the ROH at the moment - vocally so much more accomplished, but a dreary, shallow affair.

The ROH orchestra, lead by Andrew Davis, seemed tentative to begin with, but warmed up throughout and gave a very good performance of this score. I wanted a bit more warmth and body sometimes, and occasionally Davis' conducting felt closer to efficient rather than inspired, but the overall result was emotionally arresting and true to the spirit of the score.

So, far from a definitive performance of this masterpiece, but certainly a very good one and one of the best things on offer in London this summer.

As an aside, the Renée Fleming album that I mentioned has an extraordinary recording of Ellen's Embroidery in Childhood aria on it, and makes me wish that the Met would release an archival recording of her sole assumption of this role - a voice of such liquid beauty singing this role would be such a welcome addition to the recording catalogue of Peter Grimes - the Were we mistaken duet at the start of the second act, or to hear Fleming's commanding power in Let her amongst you would be such a thrill. Are you reading this the Met? Get on it.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Madama Butterfly at the Royal Opera House

Madama Butterfly General

OK. Madama Butterfly. We'll get into the review in a second but oh dear. Oh dear. Where to start? The music is just poor. Not as poor as Tosca, and certainly not as bad as Turandot, which for me is the worst opera in the standard repertoire. But poor it is - breathtakingly crude, vulgar, simplistic (though not simple) treating a plot of undeniable dramatic potential in an amazingly crass and emotionally manipulative way. The basic musical fabric is dull more than anything, but I won't deny that the big moments, as in all of Puccini's operas, are astonishing creations. Un Bel Di Vedremo, Vissi d'arte, Nessun Dorma and virtually every one of his other famous arias are exquisite, achingly beautiful creations of nostalgic erotic kitsch which make incredible vehicles for amazing singers. But if he's capable of this level of quality and detail, then why is the norm of his work so uninteresting, banal and boring?

Puccini's depiction of Japan is embarrassing of course, that much should be clear to everyone (though the embarrassing orientalism is worse in Turandot, so maybe I shouldn't complain too much. Though maybe Butterfly is worse after all because the story is contemporary and not mythical). But basically this opera deals with sex tourism, with the underage Cio-Cio-San working as a dancer and geisha (how is she still so innocent and trusting of men?) before being bought by some rich, smooth talking, uncaring American sex tourist (of course he's a lieutenant in the navy... I bet they all say that) and then abandoned as soon as he leaves the port. The set up in the libretto is almost laughably poised towards a "tragic" ending (not tragic in the classical sense, tragic in the verismic sense) with Cio-Cio-San's endless talk of love and rapture and staying true, and Pinkerton's endless talk of money, betrayal, lust etc. etc. Not subtle. It's only in the second act when we realise she's had a nipper that Puccini starts pulling at the heart strings, and then in act three he's playing you like a harp. Of course such a painful human story is going to elicit tears - but isn't it repulsive to sentimentalise it to this extent?

I find it extremely difficult to understand how people can seriously consider Puccini's art next to Mozart's, Verdi's and Wagner's, let alone Janacek and Berg and even Strauss, his near contemporaries. Apart from the arias, in every parameter, his operas are embarrassing compared to these composers.

People have assured me that I will grow into liking Puccini as I get older, but presumably that entails that at some point in my 50s or 60s, as well as my looks fading, my jawline disappearing, my gut expanding and control over my bladder becoming ever more perilous, I will also take leave of my critical faculties and will begin to mistake tawdry, maudlin lyric melodrama, for the "real thing". I shudder at the thought, but everyone assures me it is coming, so like ear hair, back hair and liver spots, maybe I should just accept it and start worrying about other things (full disclosure: I'm not going to accept it).

This production is very simple, and is basically completely traditional. All the action goes on in one room, with a screen at the back constantly sliding up and down (noisily) to reveal the garden, the harbour or the Bonze. Other than that it's rather static and not exactly a feast for the eye and I did get a bit bored. The lighting is appalling, with big blocks of bright colour scattering across the stage almost at random. It's often too difficult to make out what the actors are doing in the gloom, and evocations of evening and night are generally clumsily segued into. I don't like the way that Pinkerton barely registers in the third act in this production, and although Cio-Cio-San is rightfully the centre of the action, we need to remember that Pinkerton has also aged 3 years and the regret he feels is due to his maturing in that time (at least nominally, he no longer seems to be a playboy). In this production he just starts sobbing and then runs off. The right dramatic/emotional triggers are all in place to make this a sob fest, but somehow it doesn't quite work, probably because act I doesn't work to make Cio-Cio likeable enough.

Patricia Racette can look lovely on stage, but Kristine Opolais, who has replaced her, is silly pretty. The looks don't quite transfer across the theatre though, but she'll look amazing on film no doubt. Even more striking perhaps is the American tenor, James Valenti who could be a model (he's so pretty! Men aren't even my bag and I still would! I strongly suspect that this was a big part of why he was cast) and this time the looks carry. He is absolutely ideal for douchebag B.F. Pinkerton - he acts it with just the right sort of nonchalance and sneering casualness. I think it'll probably look amazing on screen. But is he overparted? Again it'll be fine when recorded up close, but it wasn't always easy to hear him. This was a general though - would be good to hear from people how he does on opening night.

The singing is pretty good actually. Neither of the leads did much for me vocally, but it's all in place, in tune, without wobble, and with a few exceptions, easily audible. Not that exciting though it has to be said. Robin Leggate is the most powerful vocally, but in this case there's quite a bit of wobble in the tone, though it doesn't jar in this old serious man role, like it usually does. Suzuki is not a grateful mezzo part (not a single aria!) but Helene Schneiderman makes the most of it. Everyone seems to be a decent actor, which bodes well for the filming.

The filming is for an upcoming 3D cinema presentation of this show (ooh 3D, I've never seen opera in 3D before), and apparently the cameras will be there to film it again twice in the run (on the 8th and 15th July. Don't quote me). Whether it'll be as intrusive as it was here I don't know (at least four cameras in front of the stage at all times including a MASSIVE crane which requires 20 or so stalls seats to be removed).

UPDATE: You can quote me after all - the 8th and 15th July are the correct dates, and additionally, on those two dates, the maximum ticket price will be £37.50.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Simon Boccanegra at the ENO

Simon Boccanegra

Not sure what the official Verdian party line is on this, but I find Simon Boccanegra to be Verdi's most musically satisfying score. Dramatically too, despite the complexity of the story, it delivers something quite unlike any other work of Verdi's. Overall it's probably my favourite of Verdi's operas. I'm not sure if this a quixotic choice. It's not thrilling in the obvious ways that Traviata or Othello are, but it has such gravitas and depth. The music is extremely beautiful, both harmonically and in the darkly glinting textures that Verdi conjures in his extraordinary orchestration, its steely glow supporting the predominantly low voices of the cast. Not much of the vocal writing is glamorous, but so much of the music is memorable, soulful and deeply affecting, despite it hardly being Verdi's most tuneful score. Amelia though is one of Verdi's most vocally grateful, if demanding lyric soprano roles.

Dmitri Tcherniakov is both the director and set designer of this production, which he has chosen to update to the 50s/60s for the prologue and then 80s minimalism (maybe?) for the opera main. After the shadows and bright lights of the prologue, the production sinks into a sea of cool grey and office furniture, evocative of nothing (except perhaps faceless bureaucracy). But this is a score painted in thunderous hues and subtly smoking shade, shot through with gently lapping colour and warmth, not drab, unrelenting battleship grey. It's not pleasant to watch, and presumably Tcherniakov is trying to focus on the human relationships between the characters, relying on the acting abilities of the singers to make the emotional impact that the opera can provide. Unfortunately, the acting is exceptionally hammy from virtually everyone so this approach falls flat on it's face, and indeed the further through the opera goes, the more static and boring it becomes; by the end, both singers and director seem to have given up entirely. Some things do stand out. Tcherniakov covers scene changes with a screen which shows text explaining the interceeding events - this opera is famously confusing, giving mercilessly few clues as to the complex machinations of the plot. So in a way this was welcome, but it happened so often, and usually took so long, that it became a bit laughable and indeed people started to giggle by the third or fourth time it happened. The main directorial touch that I found interesting was the freeze frame at the end of the prologue - the moment of crisis when Simon Boccanegra finds out about the death of his wife, and becomes the doge almost simultaneously. This for Tcherniakov is the defining point in Boccanegra's life and there are multiple flashbacks by way of projections and paintings of the event which occur at key moments throughout the opera. In the final scene for instance, Boccanegra seems to be wistfully looking at the painting before throwing it away in disgust - a nice idea, but here clumsily executed so that what could be a moving moment becomes another instance of scenery chewing. The scene where Amelia and Boccanegra meet is similarly devoid of emotion, the two of them simply stand facing each other, bellowing their lines. In the final reconcilliation, Boccanegra seems to just abdicate, again lessening the impact of this beautiful moment.

The singing I thought was OK though not at all helped by the translation which sounded completely antiquated and out of place in the modern context of the staging. I wish the ENO would stop this. Maybe I'll start a campaign. Bruno Caproni does not have a very pleasant voice, and actually all four of the low male roles were sung in that horrible "I can barely hear the note because the vibrato is so mechanical, metallic and wide" style that so many basses seem to favour. I don't understand why its acceptable. OK, so it wasn't that bad all the way through, but very often it was. The acting ranged from non existent to risible. This sounds like I'm panning it - I didn't hate it, it just wasn't emotionally engaging. Rena Harms is not an Amelia - this is a role that demands the control, beauty and warmth of a Te Kanawa or Fleming (ideally), and though that would be an extraordinary luxury at the ENO, one wonders about some of the ENO's casting decisions. The Cardiff Singer of the Year competition that reached its climax this weekend is surely proof enough that there are plenty of full lyrics out there who are talented enough and early enough in their careers to sing for the ENO. Anyway, rant aside, Rena Harms just doesnt have the requisite technique or basic timbral beauty for this part, and though she sang all the notes, it never sounded very easy for her. Mark Richardson looked embarassingly chubby in his skin tight biker leathers which he never seemed to step out of, but he tackled the part well, even if again, the acting let him down.

When will London see Boccanegra again? Domingos recent ROH performance was not at all to my taste - the voice has none of the shadowy gravitas that the role requires - age hasn't darkened the tenoral colour enough (though no one would seriously imagine that it would). I wonder who could do the part justice?

Cocteau Voices

La Voix Humaine
Linbury theatre

A half ballet, half opera evening from ROH2, and not a particularly enjoyable one. I am in no way an expert with regards to dance - all I know is when I like something and when something moves me, and when it does not. The ballet on offer didn't really capture my attention or interest, other than the fact that the (fairly dull) music was body shakingly, almost offensively loud. Actually quite enjoyable! Anyway, I'll leave this half to the ballet critics.

Poulenc's La Voix Humaine made up the second half of the programme. It's not a work I know all that well, and this is the first time I've seen it staged. It's certainly an intriguing score, and strikes me as being excrutiatingly diffiult for the performer, both vocally and dramatically. And for so little reward! The little moments where Poulenc allows a few bars of lyricism between the endless low lying parlando, are gorgeous as one expects with Poulenc's vocal music, but are so few and far between. The score is extremely repetitive, dancing at the edge of banality, but something about it kept me compelled despite the tedium. I found it hard to sympathise with such an irritating central character though and would surely have put the phone down ten minutes into her hysterical perrorations had I been on the receiving end of them. And the only dramatic events of the opera, such as they are, the constant interrupting from another caller, is not at all funny (is it meant to be?) and again grates the thrid, fourth, fifth time. But as I say, there's certainly something arresting going on here, hard to say what... Will have listen more to it I fear.

Nuccia Focile clearly has a gorgeous voice, glittering and beautiful, but it was completely under utilised here - the nature of the piece I guess, but still it felt very frustrating. The production is sung in English, though Focile does a french accent throughout which works well to keep the peculiar French atmosphere of the piece, but maybe was the reason why the character irritated me. Surely she's meant to be more sympathetic than here. Whether the boredom I felt was from the score of from the performer I'm not sure, but she certainly didn't rescue it from tedium, if that is what is required to make this score live! I wouldn't go again.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Rusalka at Grange Park Opera

Grange Park Opera

I adore Rusalka, for me one of the finest of all late romantic operas, coming as it does right at the nadir of the 19th century (it was finished in 1901). In places the affinity with Janacek's Jenufa (of 1904) is overwhelming, though the latter feels like a 20th century work in every way, whereas the former is without question a late flowering of the romantic era. The score is absolutely gorgeous throughout, something very special even by the standards of Dvorak, with orchestration of an art that conceals art. The peculiar luminosity and beauty of the prelude alone is extraordinary and provides the musical norm by which Dvorak continues.

But Rusalka is hard to bring off in performance, and many productions go wide of the mark and don't allow the piece to make it's full impact. Part of this I believe is due to the confusion that arises about how to categorise this opera: the music falls into two distinct styles throughout and is constantly switching between them. The first is the ultra-lyrical, serious and sad music that surrounds Rusalka and the Prince - this is as you'd expect from late romantic opera - rapture, heart break, passion (Eugene Onegin the clearest antecedent, with Wagner for orchestral sweep and erotics) though of course with Dvorak's instantly distinctive personality always recognisable. Behind it all, Smetana provides another important well spring.

The second style Dvorak utilises when dealing with virtually all the ancillary characters, and this one is far more connected to the folk music of his native Bohemia; the clearest ancestor is Humperdinck in Hansel and Gretel, and it's extension again back to Wagner. Humperdinck's peerless masterpiece manages to merge German folk song into a wholly Wagnerian orchestral fabric and is one of the greatest of all Wagnerian operas. Similarly in Rusalka, Dvorak's native folk music is given deluxe late romantic orchestral treatment, creating a spirited, folksy charm that marks a stark contrast to the music for central heroin's plight. This seems to vex many directors who struggle to assimilate both styles into one vision, the "serious-tragic" on the one hand and "spirited-folksy" on the other - each has it's own vocal style, it's own dramatic rhythm, mood and dramatic workings. As a result, Rusalka remains only on the fringes of the repertoire, revived with regularity, but often one leaves the theatre feeling that it's a better opera than the production has allowed.

The opening scene with the water nymphs for instance, so clearly borrowed from Scene 1 of Rheingold and Act 3 of Die Walkure, but then sculpted and folked to taste, beautiful and enchanting when sung well, here felt awkward in contrast to Rusalka's entry. Part of Dvorak's dramatic plan is this enormous contrast in mood and pace, but it didn't come off here. The production is slightly redolent of a school production with its simply painted sets (overhead projector onto flat boards?!), and crude simulacra of the pool and forest. It's not at all visually alluring, but at least the story is told clearly and effectively enough.

Rusalka can be interpreted in lots of different ways - another reason that it is rather hard to stage - it's not at all obvious what to do with it. Part of the late 19th century's obsession with folk tales was what they might mean psychologically, what under the surface they really reflected about the situation and us. So whereas the story is relatively simple (effectively the Little Mermaid, but with a sad ending), the psychological and sexual undercurrents as well as comedic aspects add a very interesting zest and bouquet to proceedings. The psychological roller coaster was interestingly explored here I thought, mostly in lots of piquantly arresting details.

The march in the central act was depicted here as a pantomime banquet, though the guests get rather more raunchy than might be expected at a royal dinner. In the previous scene, during the Gamekeeper and Kitchen Hand's first exchange, two kitchen staff are seen gutting fish for the feast, and when Rusalka is late offered the fish we feel her revulsion and shudder with her. Anne Sophie-Duprels plays the part wonderfully, her unpassionate, innocent, coolly piscine youthfulness all brought across very well in a myriad of little details. Her hands are constantly held stiffly by her side, flapping gently in the air. During the pantomime she is wrapped in bridal gauze but we realise that for Rusalka it feels like a fishing net, choking and harrowing. Throughout, her legs show the still bloody suture that the witch inflicts on her when her mermaid tail is cut up to grant her wish, the barbarism and pointlessness of the action again making a very visceral impact, despite it's comedic overtones (The witch is wielding a huge cleaver). The idea of mirroring that this opera contains is nicely and subtly picked up in many ways - while Rusalka's new legs are always on show and she loses any sense of elegance, the other women wear fishtail like dresses and sweep across the stage. Rusalka has bright red hair, and so to does the Foreign Princess (so evil, she doesn't even have a name!), though in the latter case her tresses are permed and quaffed, in contrast to Rusalka naturally flowing locks, straight and sleek.

Rusalka's father is a merman, here depicted like an aging rock star - long haired, narcissistic (the opening scene has him sitting on a rock admiring himself in a mirror!), world weary, and impotent. Clive Bayley plays the part very well and has great vocal presence for this great bass role.

Character actors are often very good in provincial opera, because they get paid less than the stars and so smaller houses can afford to hire them too. Virtually all the supporting cast were good or outstanding. Emma Carrington as the witch Jezibaba almost steals the show in an amazing piece of dramatic characterisation, both vocally and her superb acting. She is an ambiguous character - she seems to hate humans, but she doesn't exactly love the water spirits either - she seems to want to help Rusalka in some ways, but exacts cruel punishments too. Her costume is fantastic a business like pinstriped dress, acting as a facade for for the fishy details that trail behind. A coral necklace also suggests her aquatic affinity. Her youthful figure and beauty, but tightly pinned mass of white hair suggest an unnaturally prolonged youth, unsettling even while it remains alluring. Carrington's portrayal of the witch is sexy and captivating but her lapses into cruelty and sadism, sometimes just a flicker running across the face, show us that she's ultimately inhuman and not at all a sympathetic character. A superb performance here, and though the voice isn't naturally one that is effortlessly beautiful or even very large, it's very well produced, even, extremely expressive and beautifully controlled. I'd love to see her as one of the stern Janacek mother figures, especially as Kabanicha, a role she apparently has played at Scottish Opera. The voice is probably not quite big enough or low lying enough to be ideal, but with musicianship and acting as good as this, It's still something I'd gladly pay to see.

Janis Kelly made a glamorous and vocally splendid Foreign Princess, all sophistication and glitter, where Rusalka is childlike simplicity and plainness. She a good comic actress too, and was perfect in this role. James McOran-Campbell is a very talented young baritone and made a great Gamekeeper - look forward to seeing more from him. Karina Lucas sang the role of Karina Lucas well, though overracted.

The two leads however were disappointing - Anne Sophie-Duprels sounded hoarse, husky and vocally tired as Rusalka, and it's not a voice that I'd want to hear much lyric repertoire in (though she seems to keep getting cast in roles which require the most liquid beauty for success). The horrible jaw shaking whenever the volume increased was one of the most extreme cases I've seen - not just jaw but tongue, neck, mouth and cheeck oscillation too - way too much tension and tongue compression, which strongly affected to sound. The song to the moon was ugly. As I have said though, her acting was very good.

Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts seemed strained vocally in every scene, with a forced, horribly grainy tone in the passagio and whenever he was singing quietly and high. Again huge jaw oscillation due to tention made the sound squeezed and lumpy. His acting is fine, though physically he's not really right for the part - he's rather large and it's difficult to imagine that the nubile nymph Rusalka would be so aroused by his bulky visage.

Again the reason for this relative disappointment is perhaps only to be expected at these small-medium sized opera houses - the people who this music was written for, the people who could really do it justice, tend to be much bigger stars that demand much higher salaries that more modest venues cannot afford.

The English Chamber Orchestra sounded decent but never inspired under Stephen Barlow's direction, but then my comparison is Charles Macckeras with The Czech Philharmonic (Fleming as Rusalka) so maybe th comparison isn't fair.

So what of Grange Park Opera? To me it feels like Glyndebourne light. It's not as big, the grounds aren't as nice, the quality is not the same, the house is shabby. Even the brochure feels cheaper than Glyndebourne's (though is £5 dearer), the printing quality, layout and design, as well as the smell (! always important). I still enjoyed myself a lot, but perhaps they should try less hard to compete. Though the clientele make Glyndebourne look like a hoody scheme, so maybe that's just who their audience is.

I'm seeing Rusalka at Glyndebourne later in the season, also a revival, but one I didn't see last time, so it will be interesting to see another take on this paradoxical beauty.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Verdi's Macbeth

Royal Opera House
Covent Garden

A short one.

Let me just say immediately that early Verdi is not at all my cup of tea: Bel Canto without the great tunes, virtuosity without it being remotely exciting, serious plots with inappropriately jolly accompaniment, characters not yet the fully formed creations of his maturity. In short it's where the clichés that cling to Verdi's music are to be found, everything that is used as a stick to beat him with.

Phyllida Lloyd's production (revival direction by Harry Fehr) has many fine ideas and nice moments, but taken as a totality is a dull evening. Nice touches include the famous dagger represented as a blade of light running across the set, and the witches' hidden agency in almost everything. The witches are in some ways the best bit of the whole show, certainly the most characterful, comedic and engaging aspect with their sense of fun, turbans and synchronised choreography. Where the production falters is in not providing the characters with any depth - too often we're left to fill in the blanks from our knowledge of the play. Keenlyside is of course a great Verdi baritone, but even he struggled to make a strong impression here. Monastyrska had almost nothing at all to offer in the acting department. It can't be denied that Verdi's opera is less dramatically effective than Shakespeare's play, but a good production, and borrowing ideas from the original can at least make it more viable than it seemed here. The set is meant to feel monolithic and dark, and superficially it is both of these things, but it isn't dramatic or atmospheric enough to really provide the starkness its meant to.

The singing was pretty decent throughout, though Keenlyside lacked the dramatic impact he often has - and it seemed to be a combination of not quite being at ease with the music (it's very difficult) and not being made enough of a feature of by the production.

What was extraordinary was Liudmyla Monastyrska's Lady Macbeth. As I have said, her acting is vestigial at best (we saw this in her last minute Aida step in last month), but the voice! Oh that voice!! It's an enormous sound, apparently effortlessly produced, but flexible enough to manage all the coloratura aspects of this role with relative ease. And not a hint of wobble. But it's not all just decibels (as I worried it might have been in Aida) - there's great dynamic range and control on show, pianissimos just as beautiful and rock solid as the stentorian outbursts. She's only now emerging as a star, and hopefully her acting will improve (history says these things rarely change though), but the voice is the thing, and she's destined for great things in that category. Surely Wagner awaits though apparently she has no plans there. She would make an incandescent Isolde, but there's still lots of time: she's only in her mid thirties, traditionally the beginning of the peak of a soprano's vocal prowess. Another great voice to watch.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Glyndebourne II: Don Giovanni

Glyndebourne Festival

Two consecutive nights at Glyndebourne - such a treat. Again it was confirmed to me that in every regard, this is the best opera house in the UK.

This Film Noir version of Don Giovanni mostly works very well, and is a stylish, atmospheric and interesting updating which, like the ROH's recent updating of The Tzar's bride, never fights the score or libretto, and even offers a few interesting insights. The set by Paul Brown is a constantly revolving and unfolding cube, part house, part ruin and provides a simple and effectively moody backdrop to the piece. Revival director Lloyd Wood also doesn't mess too much with the piece and lets the thing speak for itself. It's not a complicated production but it works. And works well. (Or is it more complicated? Is the set a reflection of Don Giovanni's mind/soul - confident, sleek and fortress like at the outset, and fractured and ruined by the end? Hmm...) What's also quite nice is that the set requires the characters to be near the front of the stage for much of the time which means they're easier to hear and their interactions are clearer - this had been a fault of the first act of the Meistersinger production the previous night.

The singing was absolutely fantastic throughout. Most impressive was Albina Shagimuratova as the Metastasian heroin, Donna Anna. This is a dramatic voice in intensity and volume, but the colour is lyric - warm, focused with a beautiful vibrato and effortless flexibility. Really amazing. Unfortunately her acting is not up to much and she failed to portray a convincing character on stage. But, she's that rarest of things - the dramatic coloratura and I can't wait to see her as Queen of the Night at the ROH next season.

Matthew Rose as Leporello was also on very fine form vocally, but similarly failed to construct a believable character in Leporello. This role is always going to get laughs, but never once did I believe his antics. The same problem was also there last summer in The Rake's Progress - his vocally nuanced Nick Shadow never quite had enough character to be menacing. Hopefully he'll grow into this aspect of opera because he certainly has the vocal talent to go very far.

The other two girls were sung by Miah Persson (as Donna Elvira) and Marita Solberg (as Zerlina). Miah Persson has a beautiful voice and a charming stage presence and looking like a film-noir cliché (she has the looks too), made a brilliantly tormented Donna Elvira. It wasn't quite as overplayed and comedic as usual and was an interesting take on the role. Occasionally one wished for a little more volume to make her anger the more convincing but I liked her throughout. Marita Solberg I had never heard before; she has a richer, fuller tone than one is perhaps used to in the role of Zerlina (her other roles tend to be full lyric rep as far as I can see), but it worked wonderfully here - her two arias, the glowing jewels of this opera, were floatingly gorgeous affairs. I actually can't imagine them being sung more beautifully. Strange then that her recitative was oddly muddy and rather dull, though her acting of this coquette role (she was dressed like Marilyn Monroe) was cute and characterful.

Lucas Meachem took on the role of Don Giovanni, but having seen Gerald Finley as Sachs the night before and knowing that he sung the role last summer when this production was premiered, I occasionally yearned to hear him sing it instead. Not at all fair though as Lucas Meachem sung the part brilliantly, displaying power, menace and beauty, all essential for a good Don. He's a decent actor too, serious and realistic, but just maybe a tad old and a tad portly to be convincing as a serial seducer. I guess if the Rake has slept with as many women as are mentioned in the catalogue song, he's going to have seen a few summers! The other men were also good, especially In-Sung Sim as the Commendatore, a colossal bass voice, and here resurrected at the end as a zombie, putrescent, bloodied and with glistening viscera on show.

Finally the The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. I have never heard Mozart's magnificent score performed better than it was this night - just truly breathtaking playing in every parameter. Simon Rattle hits the nail on the head when he says "period intruments have more colour, flavour, shape and less weight than modern ones. They are more tangy, more piccante. We can play full out with greatest passion, and still sound like Mozart". This was exactly the impression I had - such colour, incisiveness, white hot intensity and extraordinary beauty I have never before heard in a performance of music of the classical era, but at the same time never once did it go outside the bounds of what might be considered good taste. This was in no small part due to the amazing young conductor Robin Ticciati who is surely one of the most exciting young talents in Britain at the moment. It's a bizarre conducting technique, with an ill defined beat, and odd bouncing stance, but clearly something works and very well too, because he lead a similarly orchestrally magnificent performance of Hansel and Gretel last summer at the festival (again, one of the most incredible evening of music I've had the pleasure of attending). Unspeakably brilliant.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Glyndebourne I: Meistersinger

Glyndebourne Festival

I always forget that the first act of Meistersinger is bloody awful - unremitting exposition, tedious, almost without character because it's so neutral and lacking in beauty*. I say this only because Act 2 is actually genuinely funny (who knew that Wagner could pull that off?) and often very beautiful, and act 3 is absolutely gorgeous almost throughout. I had standing tickets for this, the longest opera in the standard repertoire and I was not looking forward to the prospect of standing for the whole thing after the first act. Luckily, I met some friends who had a spare ticket so after the first act was able to see the set properly. This production (directed by David McVicar, designed by Vicki Mortimer) is absolutely gorgeous and has a great sense of fun - I can't imagine having enjoyed it more. It's one opera that Dave McVicar can't shoe-horn any breasts or blood into - if anything one is surprised at how unradical his view of the work is. I like the updating into the early 19th century - it's not earth shattering, but certainly adds it's own piquancy and feel, and the chocolate boxeyness of it I read as McVicar's slight parody of equivalent 16th century stagings and also his warm acceptance that actually occasionally, when done beautifully, they can be a wonderful indulgence. The main feature of the set is a vaulted pseudo Gothic arch with sensuously beautiful curves that actually (anachronistically) put in mind the natural arcs of art nouveau - and not for nothing - a reminder that nature inspires art, as the hero Walther is so keen to express. This piece is ingeniously reused and given a new context in each scene, most beautifully in the last Act where it acts as both the ceiling of Sachs' workshop (and one really feels like one is "in the city") and then with a clear blue sky as a backdrop, it becomes a canopy, a festival marquee, a centrepiece for the final scene.

Walther looks for all the world like Napoleon (though unlike Napoleon, he towers above his companions) and reminds us of the nationalism present at the time in Germany during Wagner's youth, which explains the updating.

In short it's a wonderful staging and I am perplexed by the grumblings about authenticity and lack of purpose that it has aroused. Crucially, it doesn't feel like McVicar is doing anything to the opera, a mark of a good production in general I think, but always with Wagner an even greater relief - he of all opera composers doesn't need meddling with because the vision is so complete, untrivial and serious. I'm not bashing Regie theatre at all, and I enjoy original stagings (Regie or otherwise) more often than I enjoy "traditional" stagings, but I think the danger is greatest in Wagner.

Onto the singing. As is only right, Gerald Finley as Sachs stole the evening. I was not at all expecting this because I've always seen Finley as more of a lyric baritone, but he had far more vocal presence and heft than any one else on stage, supported by his peerless diction and wonderful shaping of the text. His Sachs seemed younger than most characterisations, the world weary, Santa Clausine, cobbler-poet cliché done beautifully by some, but a cliché none the less. Does he ever really convince as a common man with all his eloquence and extraordinary beauty of expression? Finley cut the faux beery folksiness and I for one didn't at all miss it. I wonder whether he'll take on any more Wagner - the voice has focus and power married to vocal warmth, intelligence and good acting ability - I'd certainly like to see him do more.

Beckmesser, the comedy figure in this drama, was equally fantastically portrayed by Johannes Martin Kranzle, so many lovely little details of characterisation and a vocal performance that was genuinely pleasant to hear. And am I the only one who quite likes Beckmesser's song?! I like that it is so often at odds with what the orchestra is doing, and at least it's memorable! Meistersinger is flawed for a couple of reasons: first that this trivial story is stretched to become as already mentioned, the longest opera in the repertoire, and second that Wagner can't actually write a good tune as this piece so obviously cries out for in the various songs. Walther's prizesong, that is presumably meant to overwhelm us, is the some of the least memorable music in the piece - it's not bad as such, just a rather bland piece of tenoric exaltation. Compare this to Sachs' wondrous monologues and Wagner's strengths are laid bare for all to see.

This fact was not helped by the fact that Walther was not at all well portrayed by Marco Jentzsch whose tenor lacked the vocal glamour and power that this role so clearly requires. And his acting was poor to nonexistant, embarrassing next to Finley's subtle efforts. The other half of the romantic couple, Anna Gabler, was the cast's other weak link - just absolutely no sense of legato whatsoever - each note appearing, separate, before the next one was squeezed out like toothpaste. And the diction was similarly awful. It's for me the worst kind of Wagnerian singing, that is one completely divorced from the Italian school. Her interactions with Sachs at least were rather moving.

The rest of the cast were generally very good, with beautiful contributions from Michaela Selinger as Magdalene, vocally outshining Gabler. The youthful feel of this production was mirrored in Jurowski's luminous conducting and the glowing contribution of the festival chorus. The necessity of having a modestly proportioned pit orchestra coupled with the size of the Glyndebourne auditorium meant that detail and warmth could be focused on, to sometimes overwhelming effect.

A great evening of opera.

*I'm joking. Sort of.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Two brides at the Royal Opera House

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...