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Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Tosca with Kristine Opolais at ROH


I do try hard with Puccini. It's been three years since I last saw Tosca live, and though I have avoided it since due to my lack of enjoyment of it then, in music I find it interesting how tastes evolve and what exposure to other music, the passage of time and personal reflection does for expanding personal horizons. Unfortunately I liked it even less this time than I did before, and have realised that I just can't go to see Puccini's operas any more. I'm pretty certain they'll survive without my patronage. That said, I have already booked to see the upcoming Gheorghiu Rondine and then next season will certainly see the Manon Lescaut (I actually quite like this one, and don't mind Boheme either), but I just can't spend my evenings like this - being bored by the music, situation and characters.

What do I find so distasteful? I've explained partially before, but in general, the appalling music (excepting the often exquisite arias, everything else is banal padding finished to a high degree of surface polish, but repetitive, simplistic, vulgar, kitsch, maudlin, dull), lifeless characters, every event manipulatively designed to wring some emotion from you whilst lacking a coherent dramatic arc or genuine insight into dramatic material, the unflinching and unapologetic shallowness in all aspects and the combination of cruelty and sentimentality which permeates everything. The ultimate reason though for my extreme distaste must be the first reason given: simply that I find the music to be very poorly made (excepting the aforementioned arias, and once again, admitting a certain well polished professionalism in the surface). These things are common to everything by Puccini post La Boheme, but there are special features/failings in Tosca which struck me whilst watching that bear mentioning.

The first thing that I find difficult to stomach is the unlikeable couple at the heart of the piece. Cavaradossi is one of the dullest heroes ever sketched, lacking any character traits rendered in the music except his nauseating supplication towards Tosca. Truly hard to watch. And what in the first act makes us care about what will happen to Tosca? Her narcissism, constant challenging behaviour, desire to control Cavardossi and petty jealousy positively scream her subconscious desire for Cavaradossi to be a man and stand up for himself, but it also makes her very unlikeable. I think we're meant to care about her because of what happens in the rest of the piece, but her one dimensionality makes it very difficult indeed. The political subplot is paper thin: a plot device to set the characters up for the second Act's extremities that is clearly of no interest to Puccini in and of its own. The ultra crude use of leitmotifs introduced here in Act I and continued throughout the opera is risible and disrupts the flow of the music because Puccini so roundly lacks the required skill in counterpoint to make proper use of the technique (c.f. his contemporary Strauss who goes to the other extreme, where the technical facility is so great that everything can easily descend into an endless mush of undifferentiated themes and thence game playing).

Act II is by far the strongest dramatically and probably contains the best music. Most interesting for me, just before "Vissi d'arte", Scarpia, by far Puccini's most interesting character and in some ways surely an artistic self portrait, utters words which might be Puccini's artistic credo: "Che importa?! Spasimi d'ira... spasimi d'amore!" (Literally: What does it matter! Spasms of rage ... spasms of love!). Puccini is turned on by both equally, and when taken together all the better. It's clear whose side Puccini is on, and the opera becomes entirely flaccid once Scarpia meets his demise.

Act III is one of the worst final acts ever: shockingly tedious, with so little happening musically or dramatically: the endless musical repetitions of the opening, minimally atmospheric, the pointless boy soprano solo, a dramatically pointless Cavarodossi aria, an extremely discursive meeting between Tosca and her lover in which very little is relayed or expressed. Then the last four minutes in which we have a bizarre fake execution which turns out to be a real execution (both predictable and anticlimactic because the highly unusual situation of a fake execution just turns out to be the normal situation of a real execution), then 30 seconds of ludicrous action where the heroine, still in ballgown, shuffles off to a ledge and leaps to her death. Where's the tension? Bizarrely bad pacing considering that everyone says he's such a man of the theatre.

I have little to say about Jonathan Kent's production. It attempts a sort of realism with detailed "period" sets, but the lighting gives it an unnatural Disneyish edge (perhaps mostly resembling Beauty and the Beast) and there's an awkward cramping of the stage space and visual overstuffing with extraneous paraphernalia. In this revival characterisation was in general very undetailed, Yonghoon Lee's admirably sung Cavaradossi hampered by stock acting, and Kristine Opolais's Tosca exaggerated and hammy. The exception was Michael Volle as a very good Scarpia, dramatically committed and superbly sung, though overall he strikes me as too sensitive a singer for this role. Can we get him at the ROH in something German? His Mandryka is close to ideal. Opolais was the cause of some excitement in London as Butterfly two seasons ago and probably the reason why these three Toscas sold out this time round (certainly the reason why I came to see it again). She has a large voice that has been touted as ideal for Puccini, and while the sound production is even and the voice attractive, the chest register is nowhere near developed enough for this role, and there's very little variation in timbre. I was a little bored by her Vissi d'arte which is probably not a good sign.

Maurizio Benini generates truly stentorian sounds in the pit and shapes and colours everything as ideally as I imagine Puccini fans could hope for.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Written on Skin at the ROH


As a lover of much of Benjamin's oeuvre I expected to love this. And I did not. I'm still trying to figure out why. (I should note that I am considerably better disposed to the score now that I have heard the CD recording a few times than when I heard it in the theatre)

The thing felt compositionally "thin" - the rate of musical ideas is very low, the harmonic rhythm is extremely slow, ideas unfurl with minimum density and intensity. The aural surface is very beautiful, a slowly waving curtain of sounds, like Feldmanised Debussy stripped of its lush core and played at half speed: timbres are muted, crystalline, nacreous, pearlescent, with occasional explosive outbursts of violent noise that erupt from nowhere. It's very wind/brass focussed, with strings often just providing a whispy miasma of harmonics and viol like timbres, veils of sound imitating and supporting muted trumpets, which might be the "Ur-klang" of the piece. The score doesn't always seem to intersect with the libretto, at times diverging, falling out of focus, a softly atonal mist coiling around the subject - it's the opposite of German opera which demands that the story be told by both words and score in perfect harmony at all times, both simultaneously moving forward with their own logic. It certainly has its own atmosphere, but for some reason this evening it didn't have much of an overall impact on me, and aside from about ten minutes of music in the whole piece a certain austerity and plainness kept me from being too stimulated by the music.

I was sitting in the fourth row of the stalls and somehow the timbres didn't quite resonate properly in the ROH theatre from where I was. Heard up close on the recording that has just come out, they sound ultra beautiful and the music flows with a more palpable logic, but there's a real issue if your perfectly sculpted orchestrations don't sound properly in the space they were composed for. The orchestra is massive which mitigates its performances in smaller, more intimate venues (which my guess is where it would find its natural home) but everything's so quiet, the instruments used so sparingly, that much is lost in a natural acoustic. As I say it may have been my seat.

Aside from acoustical issues, I wonder if part of the problem for my lack of engagement was the production. The central story is very simple: a rich landowner commissions a young artist to create a beautiful vellum book that will glorify his name, wealth and empire. The landowner's illiterate, subjugated wife soon falls into an illicit affair with the boy with predictably violent results when her husband finds out. The libretto is uncomplicated, quietly poetic and pruned of flab to an almost painful degree. Like the score, it's also unsentimental to the point of asceticism, there's no redemption through love (the affair is a desperate meeting of bodies only), the ending is cruel and unapologetic and there is no moral to be drawn. We don't feel much sympathy for anyone (we're not meant to), except perhaps the landowner, though as a friend pointed out, maybe that's because the story has been passed down through a book that was meant to glorify him...

In Katie Mitchell's production, the set is divided into four rooms which are in totally different periods of time. The room where the central story occurs is set in the 13th century as the libretto suggests. The neighbouring rooms are a contemporary archaeological lab with various people in lab coats analysing objects from the main story, principally the book that is the cause of the story. So the piece becomes them unravelling the story and it coming to life through the book. The action continuously switches between the 13th century story  (where the modern characters continue their business in slow motion) and (accompanied by deft lighting and changes of speed) the contemporary setting where the lab technicians semi invisibly interact with the characters and set them up for the next scene. The boy lives across both worlds and is both an archaeologist and 13th century artist. This makes sense of some of the use of third person in the libretto (characters very often narrate their own actions), but is Mitchell being a bit literal here in trying to make sense of it all? The sense of emotional reserve is palpable in text and music, but I wonder if Mitchell has taken it too far and not trusted that it will have an emotional effect without explanation and intervention. It cannot be denied at least that it is visually arresting.

I also had issues with the lack of coordination between text/music and action - at one point the two lovers are tearing into each other (manual stimulation is the plat du jour in this opera), but the music continues with its veiled soughing and the singer's exhortations are so small scale that it's difficult to marry the visual with the aural. Barbara Hannigan is much better as Agnes than in her recent QEH recital, singing with unflinchingly superb intonation, consistent tone and an attractive sound, but the voice is very small and lacks the colour for larger, more expressive vocal gestures. She's never inaudible because the orchestration is so light but I do think she would have more impact in a smaller space. Acting wise she is totally committed to the role, living it fully, and her icy stage presence is completely in line with the music and text. Christopher Purves is similarly fine as The Protector (the landowner) singing with great beauty, accuracy and sensitivity, while maintaining a strong sense of the character's oafish violence, though there were a few gargling interferences and minor cracks in the sound this evening. Bejun Mehta is also fine as The Boy, blending beautifully with Hannigan, even if his vibrato can become uncomfortably wide, unpleasantly exploding into action after a long straight tone.

The ROH orchestra under George Benjamin are committed, but lack presence as already suggested, and as already discussed I don't know whether this was because of where I was sitting, the size of the ROH, the playing, the conducting or the score's subtleties not sounding properly in a real acoustic. I wish I could have seen it from another seat also!

Monday, 18 March 2013

Eugene Onegin at the Royal Academy of Music

First cast

Second Cast

I attended two evenings of this RAM production of Eugene Onegin because the first night was one of the most superb evenings of opera I have ever witnessed. The second evening was a different cast in the same production and while vocally brilliant, wasn't quite the unbelievable experience of the first night.

Why was the first night so brilliant? There were several reasons. John Ramster's production keeps the piece squarely in Pushkin's and Tchaikovsky's original setting, with costumes and furniture of that time, though the background set is more abstract, comprising a huge "picture frame" aperture through which the sky is visible and an abstracted tree branch which pokes through, connecting the outside and the inside spaces. Lighting is used very effectively to create atmosphere, focus and mood though it might have been braver to use slightly less lurid colours. What is remarkable about the direction though is the attention to detail in every single scene - every character seems to genuinely "live" on stage, acting and interacting with an improvisatory freedom that at every moment is derived from not just the intentions implicit in the libretto, but also (and this is crucial) Tchaikovsky's score. Tchaikovsky's music in this score is almost choreographic in gesture, and the faithfulness and sensitivity with which it was rendered was of a level which it is difficult to fully summarise in words. This is not to say that everything looked preplanned and literally choreographed, but merely that these young singers at every moment were moving in such accord with text and music that it seemed as if the whole thing was extemporised. An extraordinary thing to witness.

And not just Tchaikovsky is served. Another remarkable aspect of this production is how faithful to the peculiar feel of Pushkin's original it is. I had until now assumed that Pushkin's verse novel was one masterpiece, and Tchaikovsky's was a different (albeit related) masterpiece, and that attempts to combine the two were misguided (after all one is a verse novel, the other an opera and so are animated in different spheres and in different ways). This is extremely subjective, but what John Ramster has managed is to incorporate the humour, intimacy, subtlety, intricacy and social astuteness of the Pushkin into the sweeping beauty, concision and heartbreaking intensity of Tchaikovsky's opera whilst never compromising either, or egoistically drawing attention to himself with a "conzept" that is meant to make us understand the drama in a radical new light. He trusts the work and the result is revelatory.

So much for generalities! Ross Ramgobin's Onegin is haughty, reserved and preternaturally calm but not inhuman. The look he gives Madame Larina when she smilingly touches his elbow says it all though. The garden scene is very interestingly played - after slightly light heartedly revealing the letter, Onegin goes over to Tatyana and holds her hand as if it's nothing and suddenly she's the one pulling away. He makes the physical motions of intimacy but the face and emotions remain impassive and reserved: a thrilling complexity to watch and just seems perfect for the character. His transformation into desperate ineffectualness in the final scene and the reversal of power is brilliantly handled - Tatyana recalls the physical motions of Onegin all those years ago and toys with him in a push-pull of intimacy and rejection.

The contrast between the sisters is also superbly characterised where all too often we find a lapse into caricature - "the boisterous one" and "the bookish one". Fiona Mackay is completely unaffected as a joyful, youthful, open hearted, life loving Olga - it seems to me to be so much more difficult to be convincingly happy on stage than sad, so I was particularly struck by her acting. She treats Tatyana as a playful younger sister really would, affectionately mocking character traits but with a profound love and acceptance of their differences. She dances with the peasants in Act I, is amused by Lensky's bullish poetics, and is shown to have already moved on from Lensky at the end of the duel scene - not a judgement, just a simple presentation of character. Tereza Gevorgyan's Tatyana is more sensitive and is pained by things that her sister simply couldn't understand - her actions in the letter scene were once again brilliantly aligned with the score, not just physically, but emotionally too, every compositional flicker finding its expression on the surface. And here was a similarity to Kasper Holten's production at the ROH recently (who I thought made such a hash of this scene): during the beautiful sotto voce section Onegin appears in the background in Tatyana's imagination (staring forward inscrutably a la Mr. Darcy) and at the end of the scene, walks silently to the end of her bed, as Tatyana arches in to fevered, sexually excited dreams. But unlike the Holten version where the thing is consummated on stage in front of us (see link above), the sexual tension remains here because nothing physical has actually occured.

Throughout, the pacing is unerringly adroit, again simply by following the score. I repeatedly got the feeling "Ah, yes! how simple and obvious!". An example: the way the crowd become very gradually more and more aware of the argument in Act II, turning around and forming an arena for the fighting men, all in one perfectly smooth dramatic crescendo just as you'd imagine it might happen in real life. I've just never seen this occur so naturally. Throughout, the use of the chorus is one of the most inspired I've ever seen also - always framing and shaping the action, creating new physical and psychological spaces on stage, with endless details that again suggest life, and never merely "stage business" (cf: the all too practised nervous/happy chatter of the ROH chorus). Stephen Aviss's Lensky isn't a wimp, and seems fully justified in standing up to Onegin's sneering prods - here is a passionate young man, healthily egoistic for a young artist, but not deluded about life. Just as Onegin shoots him in the duel scene, he shakes his head and raises his palms in a gesture of reconciliation - it is Onegin's bloodymindedness, the same bloodymindedness that allowed things to get so far in the first place, that is the cause of his death.

The choreography (by Victoria Newlyn) is superb, maybe the best I've ever seen in a Eugene Onegin. The dances in the three acts wonderfully create the mood and feel of the three social strata, and the movements, gestures and moods are again so closely tied to the score - playful joy and pure physical delight in the Act I peasant scene, flirtatious charm and proper manners from the middle classes in the Waltz of Act II, and chilly elegance and artificial beauty in the Act III palace Polonaise (though wonderfully, in that creeping B section of the dance, we see all the liaisons, frivolities and intrigues that go on in the deserted corridors and behind the closed doors of the palace, when people think no one is looking.)

Other moments that resonate in the mind: Stuart Jackson's amazing french clown Monsieur Triquet, physically dwarfing everyone on stage (wearing an inspired costume which with its enormous pompoms made the sense of scale even more uncanny), and with a brilliante cadenza to top off the song, the first time I've not been bored by this scene; the masqueraders that follow Tatyana like phantoms in the ballroom; A bewigged Lensky serving Onegin a drink at the palace just as Onegin mentions his friend haunting him; Anna Harvey's posture and warmth as Madame Larina, totally convincing as an elegant middle aged woman though she can scarcely have been older than Tatyana in reality; similarly Rozanna Madylus's brilliant little reactions as Filipyevna, yet another generation older, but the physical embodiment is total; the four central woman left in a diagonal across the stage at the close of the Act II ball so we see their final emotions unambiguously without the hubbub of the crowd. Everywhere the action was so riveting, well characterised and brimming with detail that I kept forgetting to look at the surtitles as I just wanted to drink it all in.

Musically there were many good things from the first cast. The main thing to comment is that all of them served the drama with their singing, in accordance with their superb and beautiful acting. No mean feat and in a production as engaging as this, complaining about some aspects of the singing seems like quibbling. Tereza Gevorgyan is perhaps not an obvious choice as Tatyana as the part sits low and it is her ultra intense high register that is the most thrilling region of her voice. The lower reaches of the voice are attractive, but aren't yet the equal of the highs. Still the legato and musicality make her a satisfying singer. Ross Ramgobin's Onegin is well characterised, well sung, and contains many lovely things, but vocally he seemed a little out of his comfort zone, and it was clear he was tiring by the end. His recent "O du mein holder Abendstern" in the John Tomlinson masterclass I attended seemed much more comfortable and finished to me, which is why I suspect that he was not having the most easy night here. Stephen Aviss's Lensky was secure and manful and I could really see him doing this role professionally. Olga is an extremely low lying mezzo part, really not ideal for most young mezzos, but Fiona Mackay did a good job at tackling its extreme tessitura. Anna Harvey's Madame Larina was much better sung in the second night I saw her, with a pleasingly full timbre and comfortable fluency, and Rozanna Madylus was equally good in the alto role of Filipyevna. Young basses are always difficult to appraise because it's a voice type that famously takes a long while to mature, but Nicholas Crawley's Gremin was very nicely sung, his fruity timbre losing stability only on the very low, very long final phrase.

The other cast I saw was quite different - almost all seemed more finished vocally, but equally the intensity and detail in the acting was not quite there for any of them in the same way, and though they were still well above average in this area, the evening as a whole wasn't quite as magical - just a very decent evening of opera. Can't complain too much! Gareth John's Onegin (who I also saw in the John Tom masterclass) was vocally a powerhouse, and he seemed to get stronger and stronger as the evening went on. It's a very warm, beautiful, full sound, even from top to bottom, and surely just about ideal as Onegin - comparable to any professional I've heard. Just as in the John Tom masterclass he has a tendency to lean back slightly whilst singing, which here suited his character, but the silent intensity of Ramgobin's Onegin was not there. Samuel Furness is also brilliant as Lensky, the best I have heard him sing - the technique is now quite excellent - his piano singing very controlled, and his top splendidly ringing and beautiful. There is still hoarseness in the middle voice, but it's no longer there all the time, and if he continues to improve at this rate, he will have a very formidable career. His Lensky was angrier and more physically tense than Aviss's but again, his physical bearing on stage has improved hugely since the last few times I have seen him. Sara Lian Owen's Tatyana is very vocally assured, and again could surely sing this professionally soon, her top of particularly luminous fullness, though the line sometimes became broken up and lumpy in the middle voice. Her committed portrayal of Tatyana was less pained than Gevorgyan's, girlish and smiley in the letter scene, not quite as sensitive dramatically, and unfortunately she didn't seem to be fully addressing Onegin in the final confrontation. Irina Loskova was a slightly more vampish Olga than Mackay but also did her best with the tessitura which remained slightly out of her reach. Thomas Elwin's attractively sung Monsieur Triquet was smaller scale (not just literally) than Stuart Jackson's, and his vision of the role seemed to be quieter and more reserved. Angharad Lyddon revealed a truly wondrous voice as Filipyevna, displaying all the hallmarks of a true contralto: ultra rich chest voice, firm middle registers and an eery, shiny intensity in the top (which starts much lower than where mezzos or sopranos start to sound like their top) though her physical characterisation was not as acute. I've heard her before in a Schubert song evening and though she was billed as a mezzo, I strongly suspected then that she was a true contralto then, and to me this entirely confirmed it. So unusual and satisfying to find such finished singing in such a low voice so young.  Andri Björn Róbertsson's Gremin was exquisitely sung - every phrase loaded with subtleties, almost too much for this role! The colour of the voice is lighter than we expect for Gremin and I imagine he is a bass-baritone rather than pure bass.

The orchestra was serviceable under Jane Glover who amply supported the singers but failed to excite the playing that she was clearly trying to draw out of her young musicians. The biggest draw back was the tentative violins who with their choppy phrasing and lack of commitment left the first act feeling undernourished. There were moments of splendour too however, especially in the later acts, and I was particularly impressed by the cellos whose handful of important tunes, often botched by professionals, were rock solid and very beautiful. The RAM chorus sang and acted thrillingly throughout.

Overall then, the first night was a stunning evening of theatre, with some very fine music making, and the second night was a good evening of theatre, with some superlative music making. If forced to choose I would pick the first because it's so much rarer to witness, but both evenings should have made the all involved and the Royal Academy of Music very proud indeed.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Royal Opera House's 2013-14 Season

What an exceptionally exciting season! Best for a long while in my opinion - so much to savour. Aside from the inevitable Tosca/Bohemes there's almost nothing I don't want to see.

See it in full here.

Turandot (Sep then Feb/Mar)
Haven't seen the ROH's Turandot but it's an opera I find it very difficult to get on with, but I'll still go for the casts. UPDATE: after recent Tosca experience, I don't think I can face it, unless someone pays me to go.

Le nozze di Figaro (Sep/Oct then May)
McVicar's production is one of the best things he's ever done, and the casts are good. The first run is conducted by Gardiner, and then for complete contrast the second run will be Colin Davis (yay!). Keen to see Sally Matthews' Countess again, and Gerald Finley as Count also is great news.

Elektra (Sep/Oct)
This season is the 150th anniversary of Strauss' birth so he's appearing three times this season. Adrianne Pieczonka as Chrysothemis is very good news, and Christine Goerke I've never heard before but is a good voice on the evidence of youtube clips (though is it big enough?)

Les Vêpres siciliennes (Oct/Nov)
A new production by Stephan Herheim, his first at the ROH. Seriously exciting. I haven't talked much about him on this blog as I've never seen one of his productions live, but he is obviously the big name in opera directing at the moment so this is a major occasion. Cast is not greatly exciting, though I am one of the people who do like Brian Hymel. Maybe Poplavskaya will continue to improve? Will be good to see Schrott in a large role I guess too.

Wozzeck (Oct/Nov)
with Simon Keenlyside, Karita Mattila, John Tomlinson. Enough said.

Parsifal (Nov/Dec)
Stephen Langridge's Minotaur production this season was quite wonderful, but Parsifal is a very different piece. Still exciting to have a new production though cast is VERY mixed: Gurnemanz - René Pape, Amfortas - Gerald Finley (so far, so excellent), Parsifal - Simon O’Neill (what? Really?) Kundry - Angela Denoke (FFS).

Carmen (Dec/Jan)
Garanca and Rice are both great singers and I will definitely want to see both in this role. It's not my favourite production and the rest of the cast doesn't excite me that much however. Alagna may be good.

Manon (Jan/Feb)
I very much like Massenet's suavity and Manon may be his most consistently beautiful score. In theory a great opera, but so rarely sung satisfactorily. Ailyn Pérez gets just two performances as Manon and is potentially more interesting than Ermonela Jaho, but again I want to see both.

Don Giovanni (Feb)
Kasper Holten attempts the most oft ill directed of Mozart's operas. The current production is frankly awful and has lasted bizarrely long so it's not at all bad news that it's being replaced. After this season's quite poor Eugene Onegin most, including me, will be wary, but I'm eternally hopeful. Haven't seen his recent Don Giovanni film, but I imagine many Londoner's will be looking to view it quite soon. Cast not particularly enticing, but Véronique Gens will be interesting.

La fille du régiment (Mar)
Ciofi was surprisingly good as Marie last season, but the big news is Florez is back as Tonio. Ewa Podles is strangely cast in a role that will reveal very few of her qualities (Can we please get her as Ulrica?!!?!) and Kiri Te Kanawa makes an appearance as La Duchess de Crackentorp - no doubt we'll get an ill advised little song from her. This is about the best production you could imagine of this slight work, so I don't mind seeing it again.

King Priam and Paul Bunyan
ETO in two not often heard works - both extremely welcome, particularly the Tippett which is an odd gem.

Die Frau Ohne Schatten (Mar/Apr)
Will be good to see this very difficult to stage Strauss work presented here with a very decent cast and an excellent conductor. It's a work about which I have very mixed feelings - some parts are magnificent, some are dross, and it doesn't sit comfortably in Strauss' output. Emily Magee is quite an exciting prospect as the Empress and Johan will no doubt make a vocally splendid but physically limited Emperor.

Jonas Kaufmann Main Stage recital (Apr 19)
Oh Yes.

Faust (Apr)
Another spectacular cast: Netrebko, Terfel, Keenleyside, Calleja. Not my favourite score, but the cast makes it unmissable.

La traviata (Apr/May)
Two intriguing casts: Damrau/Demuro/Hvorostovsky and Pérez/Costello/Keenleyside. I can't really imagine Damrau as a Violetta past the first act, but I'm still keen to see it! Most reports suggest that Hvorostovsky may be past his prime, but this should still suit him perfectly. The other cast includes a very good young husband and wife team as the lovers, and Keenleyside was quite brilliant as Germont in Munich last summer.

Tosca (May/Jun)
Double cast Dyka/Alagna/Hampson and Radvanovsky/Massi/Catana. Not that interesting for me.

Les Dialogues des Carmelites (May/Jun)
New production for ROH by Carsen makes it very appealing, but this is one of the most overrated of all operas among the opera Cognescenti (my thoughts are here). I'd much rather see Tiresias' Tits.

Manon Lescaut (Jun/Jul)
My favourite Puccini opera in a new production with a stellar cast: Kristine Opolais/Jonas Kaufmann/Christopher Maltman with Pappano at the reigns. Very good news.

Ariadne auf Naxos (Jun/Jul)
This is one of my favourite operas. Karita Mattila as Ariadne is an interesting prospect, though I fear it might be a decade too late based on recent performances. Ruxandra Donose is also an intriguing choice as the composer. Jane Archibald is a decent though not outstanding Zerbinetta (I saw her in the Fleming Ariadnes last year in Baden Baden. Fleming is rumoured to be singing Ariadne at ROH with Thielemann in 2014/15).

Maria Stuarda (Jul)
Joyce DiDonato has been making the rounds with this role at the moment and I am very curious to see her in it. It's not my favourite voice and has split critical opinion in this role. This year's Rossini will be a good indicator of how it will go.

La bohème (Jul)
Double cast, three dates with Gheorghiu. Yawn.

Moses und Aron (Jul)
Two performances from the Welsh National Opera of Schoenberg's great unfinished opera. Can't imagine this will appear again for a long time, so again probably unmissable. I think it is very good news to see the UK's opera companies pulling together in this way and forging connections.

Gloria – a pigtale (Jul)
Just noticed this amongst other things which still seem hazy or are on at the Linbury (e.g. the Turnage - is it mainstage?). Very few details, but H.K. Gruber one of my very favourite contemporary composers. Another sure highlight.

Monday, 11 March 2013

The Siege of Calais (L’assedio di Calais) at ETO

Hackney Empire
Sung in Italian with English surtitles

all photos copyright ETO and Richard Hubert Smith

Donizetti's L’assedio di Calais receives its "UK professional premiere" by the English Touring Opera and such an obscure choice is vindicated here by some excellent singing and a score of unusual richness for this composer. It's a rather dour story, short on dramatic events, but in this two act presentation (with an allegedly redundant and trivial "happy ending" third act excised, though with the best of the music salvaged and inserted into the first two acts) it is concise and engaging in James Conway's staging. Conway updates it to Stalingrad ("the definitive siege of modern times", though there was a Siege of Calais in 1940 during WWII) though it might well be any of the appalling conflicts of the 20th century - what registers is the awful deprivation and desperate circumstances of the characters. There are some interesting ambiguities - the besieged people rebel against their leader Eustachio claiming that he is selfishly not giving himself up, but when confronted, without evidence he denounces the rebel faction's leader as a spy, and whips up his credulous citizens with talk of war and fighting to the last man. Throughout there's the uncomfortable feeling that we might not be sympathising with the "good guys" - Eustachio's son Aurelio is fearsomely dedicated to what seems to be his father's ideal rather than his wife and family to which he is nevertheless dutifully committed (risking his life at the beginning to get food for himself and them).

Samal Blak's set slightly confusingly utilises a pipe as it's main focus (its myriad functions don't give us a clear sense of orientation between siegers/besieged), but overall works well to create the dilapidated tenor of the evening. Everything is in a state of squalid disrepair, and hanging up are pieces of urban wreckage which disturbingly resemble carcasses in a butchers.

Helen Sherman, Eddie Wade and Paula Sides
The score as I say is uncommonly rich for Donizetti, and has some lovely set pieces - most notably a sextet for the condemned men, and a gorgeous duet in thirds for Eleonora and the mezzo breeches role of Aurelio. This is the strongest cast yet of the three ETO productions this spring, with some outstanding contributions from the leads and not a weak link in the cast. Paula Sides is even better as Eleonora than she was as Despina in Cosi, and Helen Sherman, (on whom the make-up department have done wonders) the "hero" of the piece is spectacularly good as Aurelio, singing with verve, accuracy and commitment and possessing a voice of exciting beauty, evenness and fullness in all registers, and with a thrilling edge in the sound. She's singing Nero in the ETO's Autumn Coronation of Poppea so we have that to look forward to. Eddie Wade is a new voice to me: he is excellent as Eustachio, striding through Donizetti's writing with ease. The ETO chorus also sound magnificent in the extensive crowd scenes, and the ETO orchestra under Jeremy Silver respond once again with full bodied tone and excellent ensemble. Great stuff.

Tickets for all three shows are very reasonable indeed - go see them!

Helen Sherman as Aurelio

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Simon Boccanegra at ETO

Hackney Empire
Sung in Italian with English surtitles.

Craig Smith and Elizabeth Llewellyn as
Simon and Amelia.
all photography copyright ETO and
Richard Hubert Smith
English Touring Opera's second opera this season is extremely ambitious. General director James Conway has selected Simon Boccanegra, his first ever Verdi, but a good one for the ETO to do because of its intimacy, non outrageous vocal requirements and the fact that it's one of Verdi's finest works in this reviewer's opinion. The very complex story is brought easily into focus by Conway who doesn't get bogged down in the specifics of the politics and focuses on what Verdi is really most interested in: the human interactions and moments of very personal emotion. The endless criticising of Verdi's plots is a tiresome red herring, because they're all so clearly designed to give Verdi what he wants and needs to write his best music. The period is updated to post war Italy for the Prologue, a period of political chaos in the country, which places the rest of the action in the early 1970s. Never is there a conflict between text and interpretation - it's refreshing in fact not to have the Doge encumbered by his traditional robes/cassock/man-dress.

Simon Boccanegra is one of Verdi's most musically interesting and rewarding works despite containing fewer obvious hit tunes than the more popular operas in his oeuvre. The centre of gravity of the vocal writing is very low indeed - two basses, two baritones, a tenor and a soprano are the leads - and this darkness is matched in the glowering opacity of the beautiful orchestral writing - Verdi finds endless dark hues and inky depths in his orchestration and the piece feels unusually integrated and all of a whole as a result - it's as if he tried in this opera to produce a study in dark colours. Samal Blak's simple and austere designs work well and reflect both score and the nautical references in the text without ever becoming too literal - a much better offering here from him than for yesterday's Cosi.

Grant Doyle and Keel Watson
Craig Smith's Simon Boccanegra is vocally quite brilliant, tireless, full, and heartbreaking in the finale of Act 3  where his endlessly supported pianos are searingly pained and tender. Acting wise he is unfortunately less convincing - his body language does not read as that of a leader, and his actions contain little conviction. Charne Rochford's Adorno is also awkwardly acted and though secure vocally, the voice becomes strident and metallic in the upper half of the voice. Grant Doyle's Paulo is the cast's best actor and he's very, very good vocally too in this smallish but important villain role. Keel Watson sounded strained in the Prologue as Fiesco and continued to sing on heroically through a coughing fit - clearly something was awry. He was however much more secure in the second half and vocally excellent. His massive frame made him an imposing nemesis for Boccanegra but unfortunately also limited his ability to move effectively on stage.

Many people will be most curious about up and coming soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn's debut in the beautiful role of Amelia which is at the top end of lyric repertoire and is entering the spinto territory. Hearing her "up close" in the Hackney Empire revealed things that I couldn't hear during her recent ENO Micaelas. The voice has a very smoky/husky lower register, dark middle range and incisive, full bodied top. The vibrato I find quite slow and wide for her voice category, but overall it is a sound of some beauty. The viscosity and density of the voice suggests that more spinto repertoire awaits, but it doesn't always feel fully in control yet - diminuendos aren't smooth and just cut out to off the breath singing, and occasionally a note doesn't sound fully engaged or supported until a quarter of a second into the note. The contrast between the smooth top and husky lower middle voice and chest voice gives the voice a raw edge which some will like, but to me it suggests raw potential that is yet to be fully capitalised on. She's still at the very early stages of her career so I look forward to seeing her continue to develop. Acting wise she is not very fluent either and seems inhibited in her interaction with her father and with Adorno, her lover. As mentioned already though, her two colleagues also had issues in this regard, and it was the only thing that marred the evening for me. The beautiful and important scene in which Boccanegra finds his long lost daughter is an unfortunate casualty.

Overall though this is a good evening of opera, with great musical rewards and the emotional pay off in Act 3 is overwhelming. The ETO's orchestra continue to go from strength to strength and are even better in conductor Michael Rosewell's hands than they were in their already impressive showing in yesterday's Cosi. The orchestral sound is simply magnificent for a band of this size, yielding nothing to the ROH orchestra (who will play the opera this summer), the strings' richness and fullness belying their small numbers and the wind and brass blending beautifully and never overpowering them. The sense of ensemble is excellent. What more can you ask for?

Cosi fan Tutte at the ETO

Hackney Empire

The English Touring Opera launch their Spring 2013 tour with Cosi Fan Tutte, Mozart's most mysterious, amoral, diaphanous, warm and easy going opera. The cruel symmetries, profound human insights and lunacies, ultra suave music and curious blankness at the heart of it are all the cause of much fascination which make writers and audiences return to it again and again. It can be played for laughs, it can be played for tears - its openness allows it to easily reflect back almost any interpretation that one may have of it.

photos copyright ETO and Robert Workman
Samal Blak's designs are mostly bland, but border on the ugly: the set reminds one of the similarly vanilla ROH Jonathan Miller Cosi with its two large cream panels, against a cream back drop and floor; the addition of crude willow stencils and inelegantly shaped apertures are the only adornment we get on otherwise flat panelling. The libretto makes constant reference to nature and the elements, and there's the intimation of a cycle from day to evening to night to morning again - but the relentless fluorescent beige doesn't allow for any of this to be suggested, and the willow design and flowery dresses do not do enough to suggest the beauty and majesty of natural forces or even the Mediterranean warmth and lightness that floods the score.

To continue briefly along the design aspect of the show: why also is the maid Despina's costume grander and more fetching than her two preening mistresses' relatively tame attire? I'll stop going on about it, but I thought this production really suffered from its boring and ungraceful design.

Laura Mitchell and Anthony Gregory

With so little to look at, and with no surtitles to distract* (a good thing!) the focus was squarely on the acting, which is as it should be, but this is a double edged sword. I found most of the acting quite approximate, as if all the singers were doing impressions of the emotions they were meant to be feeling rather than their actions coming from the necessity of genuine emotion. This was confirmed to me instantly when the cast went to bow and instantly we got relaxed, very natural movement, and genuine smiles and interaction with one another. To do this whilst in character is of course the difficulty and art of acting! Paul Higgins' direction offers a light hearted and unradical view of the work, though Despina is given a bit more depth than usual - her motive for leading the girls astray is that she is embittered by a past wracked by romantic disappointment. She is otherwise sarcastic and rather flippant with her mistresses in the first scene, though by the end does feel genuine regret at her part in matters when the deceit is unveiled. There is no "solution" proferred at the end either - the couples first pair up with their original lovers, then with their new ones, then with their friends and no decision is come to.

Vocal honours go to Paula Sides' Despina, with her attractive soubrette timbre, easy fluency of line and ringing top (note that she is not the Despina in the photo above). Fiordiligi is famously virtually impossible to cast entirely adequately even in the biggest houses and Laura Mitchell has a good stab - Her "Per pieta" was  good I thought - the lows almost matching the highs, and with a nice sense of the character's frailty and vulnerability, but her first act aria, "Come scoglio", virtually designed by Mozart to expose an uneven strength of the registers, proved less successful. More worrying throughout was a strong tendency to sing sharp when any force was applied to the chords. Kitty Whately has a more naturally appealing tone and proved more successful in the far less demanding role of Dorabella. The boys' strongly contrasting voices was a nice piece of casting - Anthony Gregory's sweetly sensitive lyric tenor as Ferrando and Toby Girling's less careful, beefier baritone as Guglielmo. The two duets in Act II were vocal highlights, keenly felt by the singers and beautifully accompanied, but the other ensembles were all poorly balanced, each allowing one or two voices to dominate far too much. Don Alfonso gets some of the best arias in the piece, all of very short duration and with the most inspired orchestral accompaniments. Richard Mosley-Evans had the right sort of voice for the role, but sadly got out of time with the pit in every single solo passage.

The highlight of this performance was undoubtedly the contribution from the pit. The overture revealed charming virtuosity from the winds which set the standard for the rest of the evening - nary a note was out of place, and the orchestra, conducted by James Burton, sounded fresh, engaged and unified. The score is cut in Act II.

A slightly disappointing start to the ETO season but you can't win them all and the following evening's Simon Boccanegra was much more convincing.

*sung in English

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Medea at the ENO

Sarah Connolly. All photos copyright Clive Barda and ENO

This is the first full staging of Charpentier's Médée of 1693 in the UK, and with the ENO's Castor and Pollux in 2011 and Glyndebourne's Hippolyte et Aricie this summer let's hope that French baroque opera (or for me more specifically and more ardently, let's hope Rameau) is here to stay on the major UK stages.

This is one of the best things the ENO have done in a while. Charpentier's score turns out to be tuneful, dramatically concise, beautifully orchestrated, occasionally inspired and fully worth the effort lavished on it. I say tuneful, but don't expect a Handel opera with 15 second bouts of action-recitative followed by a 7 minute aria exploring the character's emotional reaction. This is much more fleet paced with very little repetition of the words (which can make Act I and II a little hard to follow as there's so much pretext that is assumed). As a result, musically it unfolds mainly in a sort of lyrical arioso style, with true arias mostly saved for the extensive ballet sequences which form such an important part of French Baroque opera, but which also at least give them a more explicit narrative function than we might find in some Rameau operas. Medea herself doesn't get a proper aria until Act III, and what emerges is quite beautiful - we get piled on dissonances and suspensions in a muted string haze all slightly awkwardly arrayed, with a plangently understated melodic line that Sarah Connolly shapes wonders with. There is a similarly affecting aria for Creon when he goes mad, and the brief orchestral depiction of madness on flickering strings is quite brilliant. Elsewhere the score sometimes sags - Medea's invocation that brings up daemons to help her is disappointingly jolly and light - this is just the sort of thing that Rameau excelled at half a century later.

McVicar updates the opera to WWII without worrying too much about finding literal analogues for the situation, and nor does he try to transform the supernatural elements of the plot with psychologising. It works well because McVicar focuses on the story telling with his unerring directness and detail, and of course as he's gradually taken on the role of a modern Zeffirelli for the world's biggest opera houses, in the sense that he's unafraid of sensation and spectacle, he is not averse to throwing in the kitchen sink for the dance entertainments. Here we get a glittery pink plane with rotating propeller, ridden on by a camp cupid. Yep. There are also ludicrously camp army dances, and drag daemons, which completely clash with the style of the period being evoked, but somehow it doesn't jar too much because McVicar has his tongue firmly in his cheek, and clearly just wants to delight. Fatuous moralising is not an interest of his. Elsewhere, the main thrust of the story between Medea, Creon, Jason and Creusa is sensitively told in an uncluttered, unsentimental way, helped by the Christopher Cowell's translation which is one of the best I've heard for the ENO.

Visually this is a very beautiful show. The set is a corner view into a grand 18th century looking room, and furniture is brought in and out to suit the needs of each scene. What makes it so special though is the mirrored floor which provides lighting designer Paule Constable with endless opportunities for subtle and unusual effects that imbue the piece with a soft beauty, intimacy and coruscating glamour. Often the gilt furniture is lit from below, and feels like it's glowing from within, and during dance sequences the dancers float in double above the action in an extraordinarily beautiful way. I have loved Constable's lighting designs before for the McVicar ROH Figaro and Glyndebourne Meistersinger, though have also found them wanting occasionally (e.g. the Glyndebourne Vixen) but overall he seems to be one of the best people around for this stuff.

This sort of but doesn't quite show what I mean. Depicted here is Creon's vision, with the previous intimations of incestuous lust for his daughter consummated dramatically, if not literally, in a particularly memorable sequence. Yes we do get the "dancing clones" opera cliché here, but it was well done, I promise.

The cast is extremely good, one of the best I've ever heard at the ENO. By every metric Sarah Connolly's performance is quite brilliant: dramatically committed, textually deft and vocally gorgeous. It's such a generous and full sound that even in the sad acoustics of the Coliseum, the lovely legato, shining timbre and rich vocal colours come through with ease. So much better for her than the recent Wagner excursion at ROH, which was dramatically as fine as ever, but vocally not quite right. I can't wait for her Phèdre at Glyndebourne this summer. Occasionally the timbre is uncannily similar to Baker for a few notes, and then fully Connolly again, and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in the more recent past also bears a strong resemblance. Brindley Sherratt is in superb voice with a Tomlinson like resonance and timbre. When is he going to sing Gurnamenz/Hunding/Sachs at ROH? Am I the only one who thinks he's fantastic? He is.

Katherine Manley
Katherine Manley is a new name for me, but what a gorgeously gleaming lyric voice she revealed with a superb legato, exquisite dynamic control and even sound across the range. It's the sort of voice that I think everyone *thinks* Sophie Bevan has (based on casting). Manley seems to do loads of Baroque stuff, but she sings properly (support, vibrato wise etc.) and is quite special. She moves very naturally onstage and is mostly a good actress, though her death was a little artificial and disappointing staid (McVicar surely as much to blame). Sophie, Pamina and Zdenka are surely roles to hear her in soon (her website is infuriatingly scant on information), but this is a voice with a lot of bloom and firm roots, so I could see Tatyana, Figaro Countess, Manon, Liu, Rusalka, Arabella and Marschallin in the future as well as big Handel roles too.

Roderick Williams is also in lovely voice as Orontes, though overacts to such a degree that he is difficult to take seriously on stage. Still, he's surely one of the best English lyric baritones around. Jeffrey Francis is also dramatically challenged but seems underengaged, and though he doesn't struggle vocally, it's just not quite as beautiful a sound as any of the other four leads. Smaller parts revealed no particularly notable singing.

Jeffrey Francis and Sarah Conolly
The orchestral playing is almost faultless and conductor Christian Curnyn provides superb advocacy for the score, falling just short of the undisputed twin kings in this repertoire (Christie and Minkowski) but he's certainly one to watch. If slightly greater attention had been paid to the all important expressive French ornamentation I wouldn't have had a criticism.

Two (2) chairs are thrown. Think I'm going to start documenting this at the end of every review.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Le Nozze di Figaro at Guildhall


Mozart is often seen as a very good match for young voices, and while it is less demanding stamina and volume wise than much of the standard repertoire, there is also little that is so exacting and exposed vocally. While I have been impressed in the past by some student productions of Mozart, this evening also outlined some of the pitfalls of conventional wisdom.

Catherine Backhouse as Cherubino
credit: Clive Barda
Martin Lloyd-Evans new production for the Guildhall updates things to contemporary America, with the count transformed into a Republican Governor, the Countess his neglected media wife, and Figaro and Susanna and the others "the help". Cherubino is a stereotype of an American high schooler, and it's not clear what he's doing hanging around the American upper classes. Virtually every other male character becomes another grey suit and utterly indistinct from one another. It's OK, though not particularly interesting as a concept, but the main problem is that it's barely developed - there are power suits, TV news screens and political slogans ("Today's Illegals, Tomorrow's Democrats" ironic considering Almaviva's suspiciously Hispanic sounding name), but basically there is no significant impact on how the story is told, especially on the subject of class division, and actually some of the updating serves to make the story less credible than normal. There were also numerous incongruencies in the characterisation. Would a man of the social status of a Governor really throw himself at the feet of a maid he was trying to bed? Would a middle aged Governor's wife really countenance an affair with a high schooler? Would she really fail to cower as her husband re-enters the room brandishing a blunt object when just two minutes before he had slapped her to the ground in a rage? Would Figaro really just come into the room and sit on his employers' bed? Too many moments like these muddied the waters dramatically.

While sitting in the theatre it was not at all obvious how the opening sequence related to the rest of the opera to me - apparently it was the smuggling in of illegal immigrants for the Governor's household which serves to underline his hypocrisy (I only understood this when I bumped into someone at the tube who had worked on it, as well as the significance of the Count's gift of a passport), so I'm willing to entertain that I missed more. These interferences aside, what mostly registered was a staticism in the outer Acts and a lack of sharpness in the acting with intentions only half heartedly acted on. It felt like a long evening. Figaro is all about detail,  warmth and pain, it's all there in the score, and a moving and powerful dramatic realisation needs to be much more clearly tied to the music.

The production is double cast and I saw the second cast. Unfortunately, I didn't really feel that any of these young singers were fully ready to tackle their roles, quite unlike the recent Royal College production I witnessed. A part of the problem may well have been the set, which had everyone singing inside a small letterbox like room which severely limited movement and may have affected the sound that reached the audience, and it must be said that the acoustics of the Silk Street Theatre are very dead and unflattering.

Hadleigh Adams and Ben McAteer
credit: Clive Barda
Most impressive perhaps was Ben McAteer as Count Almaviva who sang with a very wide range of dynamic control and excellent textual nuance, though occasionally resorted to shouting. His "Contessa perdono" was very moving. Hadleigh Adams had the notes of Figaro, though had difficulties with the diction. Raphaela Papadakis was an even happier Susanna than we normally see and although this is a promising soubrette voice, at the moment there is not yet the vocal ease and fluency that the role requires - quite often notes felt squeezed and held which made the phrasing suffer. As the Countess Magdalena Molendowska also revealed a promising voice which will surely be quite beautiful one day, but the line is constantly broken up, and while she was good in the ensembles, the Countess' two arias, some of the most deceptively difficult that Mozart wrote, proved too great a challenge at this stage. I wonder whether she was undersinging and holding back too much for stylistic reasons - there was far greater vocal freedom and an exciting vibrancy when she sang out more.

Opera orchestras at UK conservatoires usually seem under rehearsed and scrappy, probably because the students are so busy with other things but it highlights quite how difficult good orchestral accompaniment is when one realises how good many of these players are individually. Generally, conductor Dominic Wheeler marshalled things quite well, and the all important Act II Finale was beautifully realised. Elsewhere there were serious woodwind tuning issues, and the Act IV Finale wasn't as wondrous or momentous as maybe it should have been. At least he was attentive to what the singers were doing on stage, and ensemble was mostly very tight.

I wonder whether the concept hampered these young performers in getting more fully into their roles, but this was not the most convincing evening I have experienced at the Guildhall.