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Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Two BBCSO concerts: Ravel, Poulenc, Martinu, Lindberg

Poulenc Les animaux modèles (suite with readings)
Ravel L’enfant et les sortilèges
BBCSO with Royal Academy of Music Students and Stephen Mangan, conducted by Stéphane Denève

Martinu Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra
Lindberg Clarinet Concerto
BBCSO with Apollon Musagete Quartet and Mark Simpson, conducted by Baldur Brönnimann

I wasn't going to review either of these concerts but a train of thought that linked them was swirling around in my mind so I thought I'd exorcise it by setting some ideas down. The first concert I went to primarily for the Ravel opera, a score I sometimes still struggle with, despite its delights. This was not the most orchestrally luxurious reading but the young RAM soloists did well, nicely articulating the French, though none fully technically mastered these tiny roles. It must be said though that having to establish a character (and establish stability in the voice) in such a short time is a real challenge for any singer, and no one did a disservice to Ravel's music. Jean-Baptiste Barriére provided a video accompaniment on a screen behind the singers that was rather literal and not hugely alluring in its primary colours and photoshop effects. It would surely have been more enjoyable for the kids (this was billed as a "family concert") to see the opera semi-staged.

Poulenc's lavish ballet suite Les animaux modèles (1941-3), amusingly and engagingly narrated by actor Stephen Mangan, was a nice rarity to experience, though it is hardly vintage Poulenc. I've talked before about Poulenc's thieving but in this piece the thefts are so blatant and the score so inflated beyond its means that as soon as we notice what's going on, boredom rears its ugly head and it's impossible to ignore the lack of inspiration. The thefts are the usual suspects - Stravinsky, Ravel, Chabrier, Canteloube - and it would be possible to point not just to particular works, but particular bars that Poulenc is sourcing his material from - the end of Ravel's left hand piano concerto for instance is plundered mercilessly. The swooning strings and jungle like density of the orchestration (Villa-Lobos, only pleasant) over the plodding and dutifully sentimental harmony, point to Hollywood as the fundamental "Ur-theft", already an idiom where borrowing and imitation is the order of the day. (Indeed, having just checked, it seems he was concurrently writing for the silver screen at this time). The result, though lovely moment by moment, ends up being curiously bland in the long range and unworthy of Poulenc's best, because although his fundamental technique hasn't changed, it feels by rote and lacks his peculiar piquancy.

Lindberg's ebullient and lush clarinet concerto (2002) is also marked by flagrant borrowing and is an enjoyable romp, especially when played so entirely dazzlingly by Mark Simpson, replete with partially improvised cadenza (the best portion of the performance!). Again, Hollywood schmaltz is a clear point of contact but it's made fuzzy and "serious" by filtration through Lutoslawski. The result is cartoonish in its eclecticism, which can be fun, and though Lindberg moves surprisingly smoothly between the two, and does lots of beautiful things, the self conscious juxtaposition of these disparate elements feels dilettantish in not really being fully committed to either and so the final impression is one of superficiality because the musical materials aren't being taken entirely seriously by their composer. Or to put it another way, their integration and synthesis feels incomplete. Perhaps it was just in this performance that Baldur Brönnimann was underlining these contrasts, and I will recant totally if I hear another performance? Corigliano's famous clarinet concerto of 1977 suffers in an analogous way - though it's enjoyable when taken as pure entertainment, the huge dramatic gestures come out as total melodrama in the post modern context of the piece because they don't derive from musical logic and so it's difficult to take seriously in terms of what it Corigliano claims he is trying to express.

Martinu's Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra is typical of his earliest phase in being a classic example of motorically spiky 1920's neoclassicism and also depressingly grey in colour - the Dvorakian luminosity and lyrical gift was not to appear for another few years.

Monday, 29 April 2013

DVD Review: From the House of the Dead 2007 Vienna Festival with Boulez and Chéreau

Deutsche Grammophon

Director: Patrice Chéreau

Conductor: Pierre Boulez
Mahler Chamber Orchestra

"Into the minds of criminals and there I find a spark of God. You will not wipe away the crimes from their brow, but equally you will not extinguish the spark of God. Into what depths it leads - how much truth there is in his work! See how the old man slides down from the oven, shuffles to the corpse, makes the sign of the cross over it, and with a rusty voice sobs the words: 'A mother gave birth even to him!' Those are the bright places in the house of the dead." *

In an operatic oeuvre that can already seem thin on conventional operatic niceties, in From the House of the Dead, Janáček goes several steps further along his path towards his vision of artistic truth, stripping the score back to the absolute essentials, paring down his musical language to its strangest, toughest, most intimate, and as it turned out, final iteration. The result can be painfully bare and raw, more so than ever before, and the total lack of sentimentality, sensationalism or pandering to an audience's need for orchestral exaltation and rapturous vocal catharsis sets him apart from virtually every other great opera composer.** And to a greater degree than any "Verismo" composer, Janáček is committed to putting real characters on the operatic stage; in From the House of the Dead by portraying people at their lowest ebb, he creates his ultimate paean to the value and beauty of all human life, in all its difficulty, pain, humour and occasional joy. In this score, moments of softness and wonder are minute and fleeting where in his previous operas he may have offered a sonorous paragraph of beauty (if the drama called for it!) against his oft uncompromising realism. Some listeners will find it all too much to bear, with too little to sustain them, the wild collage like patch work of the score remaining steadfastly tonal but rarely ingratiating, especially in Boulez's modernist treatment of it. But the richness and gawky beauty of this oddest of operas is there for any who are open to it and willing to persevere, and I and many others are convinced that it is a very, very great masterpiece.

In this production Patrice Chéreau and Pierre Boulez are reunited 30 years after their landmark Bayreuth Ring and the result is again extraordinary. Janáček's last opera is based on Dostoyevsky's novel of 1861 which was written after the author's experiences of prison. The dramatic structure is elusive and extremely unconventional, which is to say that there is little in the way of conventional plot - there's a number of prisoner monologues of increasing length, interspersed with crowd scenes and various interactions and conflicts, and a sick eagle's recuperation binds beginning to end. But this material needs a masterful director to make sense of, and Chéreau does really admirably: the clarity and vision with which we are lead through the opera is at times even revelatory, Chéreau choosing to focus things on certain members of the ensemble cast without losing the overall meaning that Janáček is aiming at. For these men, time has stopped, and most survive not just by recounting, but by reliving their fractured pasts - lost loves, jealousy and tenderness are common themes. In this production, Chéreau catches almost every moment with unstinting intensity, with character regie that is far more detailed than one is used to in operatic productions, and there isn't a weak link in the cast. The sets by Richard Peduzzi are superbly evocative whilst being suitably minimal and monotone.

As the disturbed Skuratov, John Mark Ainsley is the only "household name" in the cast, and he turns in a superbly detailed and touching portrait of the madman. But this level of quality is mirrored in the rest of the cast and it seems foolish to pick out individuals in what is so obviously an ensemble effort. Crowd scenes are well handled too, with a clear social hierarchy amongst the prisoners, camaraderie and tensions never seeming stagey or forced. The childlike joy that radiates from the prisoners in the opening scene from the simple act of touching the eagle is wonderfully observed. The general quality of the voices is good, more glamorous voices would seem completely out of place and beside the point. Something to note: Boulez has famously mixed attitudes to opera and its artificialness and it was surely his idea to cast the young boy Aljeja as a tenor rather than a mezzo as in Janáček's score.

I imagine that this was a near perfect theatrical experience in the opera house, but unfortunately the video direction occasionally gets in the way - very often it's a bit too frenetic, with too many cuts, and lots of shots where the camera is on the stage so you feel like you're in the centre of the action. It's clear that immediacy is being aimed for, but it actually makes things unclear sometimes, in an already hard to follow opera.

Although this might seem to be a strange choice of repertoire for Boulez, of all Janáček's scores this is surely the one which Boulez has most to say about, with its stark timbres, violent energy and thrusting rhythms and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra bring an appealingly fresh touch to this unorthodox music, Boulez firmly ensuring that nothing even remotely lapses into sentimentality. The classic Charles Mackerras recording with the Vienna Philharmonic is perhaps unsurprisingly more lyrical, and brings greater contrasts of light and darkness as well as more accomplished singers to the work. More importantly the profound affinity and extremely deep understanding of the idiom as well as peerless orchestral playing keeps Mackerras a firm first recommendation, but Boulez's very different perspective is extremely welcome as a point of comparison and must be recognised as a major addition to the discography of this work.

*These words were found on a piece of paper in the clothes of the deceased Janacek (with thanks to Gavin Plumley for supplying this translation)
**not that he can't or won't compose music like this - Vixen, Katya and Makropulos all contain truly ravishing music, and in fact there's barely a note I don't love in these operas - but he's never consciously "giving us what we want" like Puccini or Strauss or Mozart obviously are, and surely even Wagner does occasionally.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

DVD Review: Il Trovatore 2011 Metropolitan Opera

Deutsche Grammophon

Il Conte di Luna: Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Leonora: Sondra Radvanovsky
Azucena: Dolora Zajick
Manrico: Marcelo Alvarez

Director: David McVicar

Conductor: Marco Armiliato
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Il Trovatore is not overall my favourite Verdi opera but it does contain a hell of a lot of great music and has the potential to be very interesting drama if staged sensitively and the "four greatest singers in the world" that have no doubt been hired for the production also happen to be excellent actors. These famously impossible demands make great performances of the opera few and far between, and this Met broadcast DVD makes clear the difficulty of staging a great Trovatore while providing just about enough pleasure to make it worthwhile.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky is probably the pick of the cast as Il Conte di Luna. The legato is unmatched, the voice very beautiful, and though he can be hectoring in more dramatic phrases (he's really a lyric baritone) he is clearly still a world class voice. Acting wise he does rather well, convincing as a complex bad guy made evil only by love/lust - the Act II aria "Il balen del suo sorriso" is wonderfully delivered. Still, as ever with this artist, the voice is the thing.

Sondra Radvanovsky's voice is very distinctive and she makes a vocally excellent Leonora. Some will find the very fast, "always on" vibrato a little disconcerting and indeed the line between beauty and ugliness in her sound is often dangerously close - in less beguiling moments there is a tendency towards both shrillness and being flat. On the whole though she is on top form here and to my ears her beautiful singing greatly outweighs the less pretty moments - the voice is clearly of Verdian size, the legato is truly excellent, the dynamic range enormous, the coloratura is in place, and technically she manages every hurdle. The trill is lacking, but it seems that one can hardly expect this these days. The top has a diamond brilliance and a total solidity that is very appealing, and she has a very convincing chest register which is mostly well employed. The middle is where the vibrato can sound strange - occasionally there's a sort of metallic hollowness - though the metal is capable also of soft caress and great smoothness. As I say a quite distinctive voice.

Unfortunately she is let down by shallow acting and a lack of grace on stage that conspire to make her uninvolving as a stage personality. David McVicar clearly sees Leonora as a silly girl who is out of her depth but it makes for a boring characterisation. Much worse in this regard however is Marcelo Álvarez as Manrico who gives a painfully caricatured performance, a perfect impression of the "Italian tenor" that we all like to think the opera world has moved on from: stock gestures, mugging, never one movement when eight will do, little interaction with other characters. Vocally he is fine though produces nothing that is that special and it's difficult to see past the abysmal acting.

Azucena has been a calling card for Dolora Zajick for her entire career, but this DVD captures her at a late stage when the voice has become very work hardened and the sound quite unattractive. The vibrato is still fast and so couldn't be called a wobble, but it has become very wide, such that her (admittedly reduced) trills are essentially indistinguishable from the vibrato. Still her formidable technique has kept everything in place and no one could accuse her of not being able to sing it. Dramatically it is difficult to imagine that this role is so closely identified with her - the blankness and lack of life behind the eyes is hard to fathom. Marco Armiliato is fine though entirely unexceptional in the pit.

Players of David McVicar Bingo will be pleased to find all of his hallmarks here - the massive rotating wall, the inexplicably shirtless men, the unrealistically coloured sets, the updating to the 19th century, and men and women behaving badly. It's rather plain and I don't think it's one of his better productions, though maybe it would work better in the theatre without the interference of the unbearable Met Opera video direction. As so often with these broadcasts, the camera is constantly in motion, forever gliding, panning, zooming and/or tracking so that one's attention is constantly drawn to the filming and not the performance. Of course an opera DVD will not be like being in the theatre because of the close ups and cuts, but these directorial decisions don't even come from the realm of cinema - large camera movements tend to be used sparingly in films because the effect is so stylised and "filmic". It might not annoy everyone, but I find it maddening and it speaks to me of the lack of taste and understanding that the Met has for what the art form is really about.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Die Zauberflöte at the ROH


Mozart fanatic though I am, I do find Die Zauberflöte to be quite dramatically flawed, or at least, I have never seen a production that can make the libretto seem like anything less than a silly story with a sententious yet obscure moral with beautiful music added. Compared to the musico-dramatic wonder of the Da Ponte operas, it is unconvincing and uncompelling as drama - the three principal protagonists have barely any agency (they're told to do something, someone else immediately tells them that they can't, they wait while other stuff gets done to them, then they're mysteriously allowed to do the original action when the gods decide they can), the denouement of the story, the two trials, is totally anticlimactic and essentially meaningless, and the plot is so episodic that the pacing can seem curiously clumsy compared to the perfection of Mozart's previous three efforts. The masonic symbolism never seems interesting enough to warrant it being the full focus of a production, and the "philosophical/masonic/temple" music is so alien to Mozart's particular artistic genius - it's the duets of friendship and love, the arias of fear, loss and rage, that is, the points of genuine human emotion rather than the idealised, abstracted moralising, that truly fire his imagination to produce music that is justly loved and held up alongside his very greatest achievements. At least the constant misogyny of the Masons is thwarted by Mozart in making Pamina play the essential role in Tamino's triumph over adversity, thereby rescuing the otherwise jejune message of "brotherhood" by including the other half of the human race as well.

Like all of Mozart's late operas the music occupies a world of its own that is totally distinct from the other operas. Figaro is all subtlety, delicate brilliance and bristling energy, Don Giovanni searing intensity and opulent lushness, Cosi fan Tutte clarity, Mediterranean warmth and symmetry. A Singspiel on acid, Die Zauberflöte is wildly eclectic, providing the widest and least muddied colour palette, painted in primary colours with firm outlines. There's a transparency and calm that surpasses even Cosi - a simplicity of effect and a paring down to essentials, with emotions exquisitely delineated in the music, and usually wholly lacking the ultra complex equivocalness of the other three operas mentioned. Characters say what they mean! The eclecticism is by no means random and is strongly reflective of the very different personalities that are being portrayed: Mozart's unerring talent for aural characterisation taken to the nth degree, and indeed each major role is so precisely and individually drawn that they almost don't inhabit the same landscape as each other. Part of what is touching about the piece is seeing these very different people interacting and overcoming their differences of temperament and outlook.

David McVicar's production makes return and though I still like it, it's starting to look a bit old - the sets are a little crumpled and tatty, and everything creaks, hums and cracks when it moves, to a distracting degree. Still, it's a good traditional production which contains striking images, can be very funny, and is reverent and respectful of the piece. And I still love the ridiculously cute children amongst Monostatos' minions and then at the end in the Papageno/Papagena scene which also serve to show the similarities in these two character's music. For some reason, writing about this production seems superfluous at this stage as it's so famous and has been on DVD/youtube for so long.

Charles Castronovo took a little while to warm up as Tamino, but soon revealed an excellent lyric tenor with good legato and an extremely dark colouring (we're talking Kaufmann-esque), very unusual in a voice of this fach, and quite changed from what I remembered of his Ferrando. For me, this heroic manful timbre doesn't feel right for Tamino, the gentlest and most youthful of all Mozart's tenor roles, but this was nonetheless excellent singing. Unfortunately his German is only OK and acting a little bit generalised. These shortcomings were made especially obvious by Christopher Maltman's beautifully sung and acted Papageno, with his flawless German, expressive vocal shading in both the sung and spoken parts, and total identification with the role. (Though it must be admitted that Tamino is a much less rounded and more idealised character).

Ekaterina Siurina is also glorious as Pamina, with a radiantly beautiful top and floated pianissimos that make an audience melt. Vocally then a marvel, though I wonder if she has a little too much temperament for Pamina - she would be a completely luxury Susanna or a magical Rosenkavalier Sophie, but most casting directors would probably think the voice is too "full" for these parts, despite the fact that the colour and timbre is absolutely ideal (in the Popp mould). Wonderful to hear though.

The Queen of the Night is surely the most popular role in all of opera and though it is by no means the hardest coloratura role in the repertoire, the pressure to perform is immense. Albina Shagimuratova I first saw doing Donna Anna at Glyndebourne and she was magnificent there. The voice is extremely fine - gleaming in the top but with a lyric warmth and excellent agility for a voice this large, but on this first night she was not quite in her stride - her Act I aria "O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn" was a bit reticent and the coloratura slightly sluggish, and "Der Hölle Rache" featured dicey intonation in the passages that everyone is waiting for and high notes that were extremely covered. Still, the rest of her singing was very, very good indeed and it's clear that she is in theory perfect for this role and I can well imagine that this was merely first night nerves. Acting wise she is good and makes a decent stab at being scary.

Brindley Sherratt is a very fine Sarastro, not quite the basso profundo required for the role, but extremely cultivated and beautifully sung and his German is very good. The rest of the cast is very serviceable with Sebastian Holocek a commendable Speaker, and the two armoured men of David Butt Philip and Jihoon Kim excellent too. Julia Jones was OK in the pit, though the ROH brass were always too loud, and it wasn't until the final half hour that the orchestra were producing really beautiful things.

So all in all a well sung production, even if there's a slight lack of sparkle from pit or revival direction.

Monday, 15 April 2013

DVD Review: Dido and Aeneas 2008 L'Opera Comique

Francois Roussillon

Dido: Malena Ernman
Aeneas: Christopher Maltman
Belinda: Judith van Wanroij
Sorceress: Hilary Summers
Prologue: Fiona Shaw

Director: Deborah Warner

Conductor: William Christie
Les Arts Florissants

A wonderful performance of Purcell's only opera which brilliantly balances the comic and tragic elements of the drama - the only thing one regrets is that it is over so quickly. In a DVD extra feature William Christie voices his suspicions that the piece is incomplete and notes points in the score where ad lib is written, as well as known about scenes that have gone missing (e.g. for the Sorceress) and also that much of the separately published libretto has apparently not been set to music. We cannot know because Purcell's music comes to us only through 18th century copies, from sympathetic hands who were determined that this music should last.

What does remain is of course magnificent, an ultra condensed, intense drama that is one of the most brilliant instances of the genre composed before Mozart. Christie is brave in fleshing out the ad libitum parts, and crafting a short Prologue with director Deborah Warner. Actress (and now sometime opera director) Fiona Shaw takes on this role, reciting portions of Ted Hughes' Echo and Narcissus, T.S. Eliot's the Wasteland and the famous Yeats poem "Aedh wishes for the cloths of Heaven". In common with most authentic Baroque prologues it's not directly relevant to the opera, but it proves an interesting opening. Fiona Shaw's skill in declamation and obvious knowledge of vocal resonance can only be compared with operatic singing - the utilisation of vocal registers and colours is unerring and virtuosic. Occasionally the voice cracks from too much pushing, and also she's more at home with the storytelling than the poetry, but she is engaging and sets the tone admirably.

Deborah Warner's production takes as its starting point the story that Purcell composed this opera for a girls school in London, and so there is a huge sea of little faces that invade the action at certain moments. The chorus are in modern dress at the sides of the stage, observing and commenting on the action and occasionally interacting, and the central characters are all in 17th century costume and mostly act on a slightly raised central stage like in a Noh play. The whole thing appears to take place in a 17th century courtyard. It's understated but visually very striking and evocative of all the layers that are being combined here. Quite an achievement.

But what is even more impressive is the knitting together of the disparate dramatic styles to create a cohesive whole that entertains and moves at every point. Malena Ernman is a magnificent Dido, vocally beautiful, with a rich chest register and a beautifully pure soprano like top. She is also a superb actress, one of the most natural and subtle that I have ever seen in opera and her interactions with the equally superb Christopher Maltman as Aeneas are worth the price of the DVD alone. Maltman could also simply not be bettered either dramaitcally or vocally - the vibrato is maybe a teensy bit wide at times, but the text is beautifully articulated and his acting again a model of sensitivity and nuance. His character registers far more fully than normal and in some ways is the linchpin of the production. Very special indeed.

On the comedy side, Hilary Summers is a really fantastic sorceress, her acting hilarious and commanding, and her trademark timbre, hollow, androgynous and eerie, quite unlike any other singer's that I have heard, is quite ideal for the role. Deborah Warner makes her as contrasted as possible from Dido, removing any sense of grace or elegance by giving her aggressive and manly mannerisms and a terrifyingly capricious sense of humour. She does not neglect the character's central sadness either, and one is most frustrated that her part isn't bigger. Her assistant witches are maybe the only slight weakness of the production and they can become a little irritating, but not enough to spoil anything.

The contribution of the choir and orchestra of Les Arts Florissants and William Christie is as faultless as ever, and if I wouldn't quite put this alongside their absolute best ever work, it would be difficult to name people who could do it better.

This is probably the best version of the opera on DVD then as Connolly is scuppered by the terribly boring ROH production and the Hickox/Ewing 1995 one is an "opera film", a genre which I have a very hard time enjoying. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

DVD Review: Eugene Onegin 1994 Glyndebourne

Tatyana: Elena Prokina
Eugene Onegin: Wojciech Drabowicz
Lensky: Martin Thompson
Olga: Louise Winter
Madame Larina: Yvonne Minton
Filippyevna: Ludmilla Filatova
Gremin: Frode Olsten
Director: Graham Vick

Conductor: Andrew Davis
London Philharmonic Orchestra
The Glyndebourne Chorus

Graham Vick's Glyndebourne Onegin has attained a sort of legendary status amongst English opera goers since it was premiered in 1994 and so I thought I better check it out to see what the fuss was all about. Set in 1820s Russia, with accurate and understated period costumes, this is a very traditional looking production which is nonetheless rather spare aesthetically. The sets often add a degree of abstraction to the period feel - Act I has a painterly sky with a single row of corn at the back, and otherwise leaves the set as a wide open space. The Polonaise that opens Act III is presented as a sort of comedy pantomime ballet that is quite surreal and unlike the rest of the production in style, and the set, comprised only of swooping mint green curtains, is also at its most abstract here. The effect is uncomfortably artificial which is the intention I suppose, but it also feels like a set piece that is separate from the rest of the action which I am not so much a fan of. The staging for the Act II Ballroom scene is the most naturalistic and comes off as the most successful - a feeling of real atmosphere and specific setting is created here where elsewhere these things remain vaguer.

Largely then, Graham Vick chooses to focus on character Regie, which relies on having a cast that is capable of delivering strong and subtle acting performances.

Wojciech Drabowicz is vocally wonderful, and apart from occasional scoops into high notes, his beautifully rich and fluid baritone is completely ideal for Onegin. For once the character also looks believably youthful, with his slim frame, wild hair and posturing stance. Unfortunately, Drabowicz can be too ambiguous acting wise and indulges in the head shaking mode of emoting, which the production's Lensky is also guilty of. In general though he does a pretty good job as a dead pan Mr Darcy-esque figure, though his expression is more jovial/mocking which I'm perfectly happy with as an interpretation generally, and he is very good in the final scene. In this production, this scene mirrors the garden scene where Onegin rejects Tatyana - just two chairs placed at a distance from each other in the space. A nice idea, but unfortunately the earlier scene makes very little impact because there's no interaction whatsoever between the two characters and the aria is basically delivered as if Tatyana isn't there - we don't get to see her reaction at all.

Elena Prokina is also excellent in the last scene, and generally excels as the mature Tatyana both vocally and dramatically. Her piano singing is very beautiful, but I wonder how it sounded in the theatre - I suspect at times it is less than fully supported. If I'm being picky, which I always am, I'd say her chest register is a little underdeveloped for the role, but more critically her top becomes harsh when pressure is applied, and intonation in this region can also be unsteady. Acting wise, just as with Onegin, I imagine that she was good in the theatre, but up close her facial expressions are quite limited in range (wide eyed surprise, along with wildly darting eyes which it would be difficult to imagine doing alone, sadly feature a lot in the letter scene and elsewhere) and too often she seems to be demonstrating an emotion rather than really feeling it as the character.

Martin Thompson makes a fine Lensky. After a dicey first phrase in the famous Act II aria "Kuda, kuda vï udalilis" he turns in what is maybe the best account I have ever seen of this beautiful aria. Truly gorgeous. The "golden days of youth" are genuine for this Lensky and we have witnessed them: unusually, he is as playful as Olga in the opening scene, he has a sense of humour about himself, and for once Olga is not either turned off or merely amused and indulgent of Lensky's poetic overtures to her. Louise Winter is a decent Olga, but the production is not that concerned with her plight and doesn't attempt to flesh out the character too much.

With the exception of Frode Olsten as Prince Gremin, the minor characters are not well cast. Olsten has a very bright sound for a Gremin and is surely a bass baritone, but the voice is even and smooth and his aria is very well delivered. Ludmilla Filatova is simply dreadful as Filippyevna, barely in control of a not very beautiful voice. Yvonne Minton is barely better as a dramatically uncommitted Madame Larina. The production's Monsieur Triquet is also a disappointment and gets quite out of time in his aria.

Orchestrally, this performance is pretty spectacular. Andrew Davis' conducting is superb, drawing endless colours and nuance out of the orchestra, with a sweep and sense of large scale pacing that can only be described as symphonic. Every detail is in place, every string line is beautifully shaped, every phrase speaks and soars. Glyndebourne's commitment to the rehearsal process again pays dividends.

There are problems with the filming. Some are technical stage things - e.g. wig lines are irritatingly visible and in no way disguised. This detail as well as many of the complaints that I have listed above with regards to the acting would probably not have registered so much in the theatre, but the opera recording is a much less forgiving medium as each acting choice is more explicitly revealed, and so less is ambiguity is left for the viewer to fill in with their imagination. There are a lot of close ups, and sometimes I wanted to see more of what was going on on the whole stage. I can see why this would have got raves in the theatre, but on DVD it's not quite so convincing as a total performance. Still, despite there being better performances on DVD, this is a fine production, with excellent singing from the boys, and well worth watching for fans of the opera.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Pekka Kuusisto and pianist Olli Mustonen at Wigmore Hall


The recital opened with Beethoven's Violin Sonata No 6 in A op.30/1. Musicologists and program note writers love pointing out that the title page of these and other late classical/early romantic string sonatas denote that they are Sonatas for pianoforte with violin accompaniment, not the other way round as we usually think of violin sonatas. This always seems like irritating knit picking when it's stated in dry prose, but this performance seemed to embody this idea. Eschewing legato, pianist Olli Mustonen dominated the aural picture, smashing out every sforzando and right hand melody with brutal percussive force - the lack of contrast or release made for tiring and even irritating listening from him. Especially so when Pekka Kuusisto's violin playing was so spellbindingly brilliant, finding endless nuance, fun, and interest in even the simplest phrases, fast passages dazzlingly dispatched, a chain of lissome, searching string sound. Not everything that comes out of his violin is beautiful, and sometimes the sound can even be downright ugly, but it's always surprising, unaffected and totally convincing. Occasionally he'll also just spin the most breathtaking phrase that follows every rule of tasteful "proper" playing. I simply don't know of any other currently performing musician that is so open to risk taking or unbeholden to previous standards and so manifestly an artist of the first standing (this last thing is important in light of the first two things). Kuusisto's musical choices in the Beethoven were as quirky and unconventional as Mustonen's but the difference was that he managed to create living, breathing art, whereas Mustonen remained merely weird and violently loud.

Observing Kuusisto playing, and as a string player admiring his freedom, it became obvious to me where his very particular genius lies. His left arm is as good as anyone's, with beautifully accurate intonation, a large palette of vibratos, and superb virtuosity. But it's his right arm (that is his bowing arm) that is truly exceptional and puts him musically ahead of most of his peers. The freedom of movement, supreme control, and ceaseless exploration of approaches to the bow affords him an unlimited expressive resource and infinite musical possibilities - his range of timbres, colours, articulations and phrasing choices is bewildering, and the speed and ease with which he can switch between them equally unfathomable. And after all this wild stuff that no one else can do, he'll whip out some old school perfect Russian bow hold (Heifetz/Elman/Oistrakh/Kogan take your pick) and play with the imperious nobility of these old masters.

For those that don't much care about the subtleties of string technique, what this translates to for the listener without fail is edge of the seat music making where you have to hang on every note for fear of not taking in what is unfolding in front of you. But fear is not the right word to describe the experience of seeing him play - joy is closer. The barrier between musician and music is invisible. Just this week I commended Carolin Widmann as being a model of great string playing, but this is the absolute opposite and equally beautiful.

Enough fangirling.

The second item on the program was the world premiere of Mustonen's own violin sonata. The first movement opens with an angular figure that is relentlessly continued in the violin virtually without pause, gradually building to a climax of considerable power and intensity that feels very Schnittkerian. The second movement starts with an extended almost direct quotation/transcription from portions of "Dance of the Earth" from The Rite of Spring (my brief over the shoulder scan of the program notes made no official mention of this) but soon this is combines with the mania of a middle period Shostakovich scherzo, and the thundering extremity of Ustvolskaya. (After Googling the proper spelling of her name, I see that by amazing coincidence Tom Service has just this week written an article about her at the Guardian website which is good as an introduction if you aren't already familiar with her singular oeuvre). A more lyrical episode follows before a dutiful recapitulation of the opening. There are some excellent moments, and bits that are memorable, but overall it feels a little too derivative for comfort - the nagging feeling that there is nothing here that hasn't been done more inventively by the composers mentioned above. Still an excellent performance by both artists and one that surely must be considered close to definitive, Mustonen's piano writing clearly reflecting his playing style and Kuusisto fully up to the demands of the tortuous violin writing.

Stravinsky's Duo Concertante opened the second half. In general, Stravinsky's piano writing is usually rather percussive which meant that Mustonen had a field day, never giving the lyrical violin part room to breath, smothering it in a welter of xylophonic bangs and crashes. We only have to hear Stravinsky's own recording with Szigeti to hear that this was not at all what he intended. Only in the final movement, where the piano has long chords while the violin plays its awed, exquisitely carved melody, was the right balance achieved and the restrained neoclassical beauty of the piece revealed.

Ravel's violin sonata has always seemed to me to be a weak link in his otherwise flawless oeuvre, but Kuusisto played it more convincingly than I have ever heard it previously. The first movement emerged as a naively youthful romance, Kuusisto spinning a delicate line of melting ardency and sweetness, a hundred miles from the crystalline artifice that Ravel is famed for and that we all think we know. Or maybe we've all just been missing the point - the frail heart of Ravel has never been so tenderly revealed to me. The pizzicatos that opened the second movement "Blues" were hilariously abrupt and unringing from Kuusisto, but then it all became clear 30 seconds later when the piano started making the exact same noise when accompanying the violin. Totally uncanny. There's very little that actually suggests the Blues about this movement, but Kuusisto again seemed to get it exactly right with his free floating, almost casual approach, with nothing too emphatic: many violinists completely over-egg the written portamentos, and are much too insistent rhythmically. The Perpetuum Mobile finale is never somehow the rip roaring finish that it seems to be aiming at, and again Mustonen was too loud to let the violin figurations speak. A shame, as he had up until this movement given his best contribution of the evening, supporting the violin line very beautifully in the first movement as well as bringing lovely details to the fore, and also acting as a brilliantly clear, stable base for Kuusisto's hazy intonations in the second movement.

We got two encores. The first was Stravinsky's Tango in an arrangement for violin and piano by Mustonen. The second was the second of Prokofiev's melodies op.35. In the poco piu mosso section after he applied the mute, Kuusisto found a sound I've just never heard before, veiled, unearthly, domed, that nonetheless had immense vibrancy, like a distant beautiful voice heard over a lake. 

Unfortunately youtube has very few clips of Kuusisto's playing, and nothing quite captures what I have been writing about. There is a video of him winning the Sibelius violin competition in 1995 aged 19. It's played very straight and the control is immaculate. It's almost boring because he's playing it as if it's nothing, and surely the heroic struggle is part of the drama and brilliance of the final movement of this concerto. A friend of mine joked that he decided to just nail it because it would be good for his career and then he could do what he wanted:

The next video is a closer indication to his freedom and imagination now - though the footage is frustratingly scant. Presumably the whole video recording exists somewhere...

Or try at 4:00 minutes here.

An utterly beautiful though more restrained recording of the four seasons exists on CD:

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

DVD Review: Glyndebourne Rodelinda 1998

Warner Music

Rodelinda: Anna Caterina Antonacci
Bertarido: Andreas Scholl
Grimoaldo: Kurt Streit
Garibaldo: Umberto Chiummo
Eduige: Louise Winter
Unolfo: Artur Stefanowicz

Director: Jean-Marie Villégier
Conductor: William Christie
Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment


Rodelinda dates from 1725 which puts it bang in the middle of Handel's operatic development - just a little after the more commonly encountered Giulio Cesare. It's a very beautiful score consisting of 25 solo arias (plus recitative), just three ensembles, and not a chorus to be seen. This does make it rather difficult to stage as so much of the work is devoted to solo scenas in which interaction between the characters must be either arrested or invented, but the musical rewards are great, and the situation interesting.

The story is too complicated to give a synopsis of here, but it involves a love quadrangle wrestling for power and love. Standard Baroque opera shtick then, but the novelty is that Rodelinda has to choose between her child's life and betraying her husband. Director Jean-Marie Villégier has a very reasonable stab at presenting the incredibly complicated plot, but where his production succeeds best is in marrying a very stylised visual and dramatic aesthetic with real emotion so that one is never alienated. The sets and costumes look 1920s, but the colour palette is very muted indeed (with makeup to make faces paler) suggesting 1940s film noir visuals, and the acting is consistently stylised to match the dramatic conventions of the silver screen. It all works remarkably well, and the opening act is particularly powerful. Unfortunately, in Act III the same intensity is not maintained, but overall this is a very well executed piece of directing.

The singing from all is very decent without being world class. Anna Caterina Antonacci is rightly the star of the show, very committed to the role and she perfectly understands the style that is being aimed at. Vocally she is good, communicating with conviction and she is adept at the coloratura, though the fundamental timbre is not glamorous (and even becomes quite rough in places) and there are not many vocal niceties (forget about trills). Andreas Scholl makes his operatic début here and is in very good voice and though not bad dramatically, his actions are a bit balletic and unmasculine, so the character is not that convincing. Kurt Streit does well as Grimoaldo, and while it's not the most beautiful voice, this is a major tenor role requiring a lot of coloratura in which he acquits himself admirably. Louise Winter's unfortunately lacks any sort of reasonable chest register which the rival mezzo role of Eduige clearly calls out for and so is miscast, but she makes a pleasing schemer along with the excellent Umberto Chiummo as the villain Garibaldo. William Christie is simply beyond reproach in the pit with the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment - gorgeous, characterful playing as almost always with this band.

Well worth seeing.

Here is the gorgeous duet which closes Act II, for me the musical highlight of the opera. I'm not sure I've heard it more beautifully sung than here.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

George Benjamin Day at Wigmore Hall (Into the Little Hill)


© Michiharu Okubo

The Wigmore Hall's "George Benjamin day" was actually comprised of just two concerts because (as the composer claimed in an interview) he has composed so few pieces where the performers would fit on the Wigmore's stage. That is to say that he has thus far largely composed for orchestra, and I have to say that generally, I think the orchestra is the medium in which Benjamin's special gifts are most obviously revealed. There are in fact are a few other pieces which might have been played - the wonderful Viola, Viola (1997) for instance, the early Octet, and a few other piano pieces. The first concert showcased some of his instrumental and chamber works starting with a very early Sonata for violin and piano (1977) which he composed before he left school. In every way an ambitious work, it's a sort of multi movement virtuoso showpiece for both instruments which has an old school first-half-of-the-twentieth-century seriousness and lyricism, while revealing something of the older composer's ear for sonorous detail and invention. I would happily cite Carolin Widmann's violin playing as a model of great string playing - perfect control, great sense of line, endlessly varied tone colour, total conviction and passion, a beautiful fundamental sound and all completely without ego. A wonderful treat. 

Marino Formenti at the piano proved to be more problematic. Formenti's mouth is a lens through which every musical gesture must pass before it can be relayed to audience - if the facial contortions were the only manifestation of this affectation it might be bearable, but in addition we get an unending accompaniment of snuffles and growls that seriously distracts from the music - after the concert it was all I heard people comment on. It's a real shame, because he partnered Widmann with sensitivity, and he is clearly committed to the music. Unfortunately the solo piano work Shadowlines (2001) felt grey and dull, quite unlike the luminous mysteriousness that Pierre-Laurent Aimard's imbues them with on his CD performance. The three studies for piano (1982-85) which closed the concert, are more naturally appealing works. The first is a chiaroscuro study of pace and rhythm; the second, created from notes that spell out Haydn's name, conjures a quiet halo of pellucid sound around the piano; the final one feels like one of Ives' studies for piano with its frequent excursions into ragtime between more abstract episodes. Although more convincingly rendered than Shadowlines, I felt the outer movements were a bit splashy, lacking the precision that seems essential to Benjamin's music, and my enjoyment was once again marred by Formenti's very invasive groaning and heavy breathing.

In between these we got Benjamin's solo flute piece Flight (1979), which is an engaging traversal of the expressive colouristic and timbral qualities of the flute, ably dispatched by Adam Walker. Walker also played Heaven’s Chimes Are Slow by young composer Christian Mason, which sadly paled in the context of the works that surrounded it. Carolin Widmann made a welcome return in Benjamin's Three Miniatures for Solo Violin (2001) which again were played with verve and great gusto by this superb musician. 

In the evening concert larger forces were mobilised as the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group played three works by different composers with Benjamin conducting. Francesco Antonioni's Ballada for string octet is an entertaining romp, explosively exploring a huge array of string techniques and sounds in a quasi tonal framework. The sheer vitality of the noise was at times pleasurable enough in a piece that perhaps does not plumb the depths, with the players clearly relishing the huge sonorities resounding so powerfully in the Wigmore acoustic. David Sawyer's Rumpelstiltskin Suite was laughably poor, but sadly also painfully long and so a real blot on the evening. The best I can say of it is that it sounded entirely professionally composed.

After the interval all sins were quickly forgiven and forgotten, as we got Benjamin's Into the Little Hill (2008). My god the quality of this score announces itself in the first bar and simply doesn't diminish in its entire 40 minute duration. The libretto is by Martin Crimp, the same librettist as Benjamin's recent opera Written on Skin, and some of the hallmarks of the more recent text are present here too - the frequent self narration of the characters, the simplicity and economy of the poetry, and the uncluttered dramatic momentum. Benjamin responds with a score of dark brilliance, infinitesimally nuanced in timbre, unflinching in invention and inspiration, and the drama seems to come as much from the musical tensions as the textual ones. In its fractured blackness and density it is quite different from the slow motion, floating diaphanousness of Written on Skin; I for one preferred the earlier piece as a dramatic and overall musical experience.

The playing of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group was brilliantly detailed, and Benjamin's direction impossible to fault. The soloists were of commensurate quality. Hilary Summers's voice is pleasingly distinctive, possessing one of the most androgynous timbres I've ever heard, her diction is excellent, and if it's hardly the most luxuriant voice and doesn't have the normal depth of sound that you expect a contralto to offer, I simply can't imagine a more apt rendering of this vocal part. Susanna Andersson (replacing the originally advertised Rebecca Bottone) was if anything even more impressive, with her gloriously beautiful soubrette timbre, light in colour yet full and firm, offering superb accuracy and solidity in the high lying tessitura, and equal commitment to diction and characterisation. Surely a likely candidate for the role of The Woman in future revivals of Written on Skin. Superficially Andersson is similar to Barbara Hannigan (who premièred that role and sung it also at the ROH) sharing all of her positive qualities, but she has a voice of greater warmth, colour and beauty and lacks Hannigan's mannerisms. 

A truly wonderful performance of a wondrous work that on its own validated participation in the entire day. Pure pleasure!

Malena Ernman: Opera Di Fiori

I have recently discovered this singer and I am completely enamoured with her voice- what a refreshing artist! After recently discovering clips on youtube I bought her Opera di Fiori CD (2011) and was just bowled over. The timbre tells us that she is a fundamentally a mezzosoprano, but on this CD she reveals an extraordinary upper extension and sings mezzo and high soprano roles with equal aplomb. So we get the trouser role Nicklausse's romance "Vois Sous L'Archet Frémissant" from Les Contes D'Hoffman sung with rich mezzo tone, but also Olympia's aria from the same opera, glowingly dispatched. We get both the Habanera and Seguidilla from Carmen but also the Queen of the Night's second aria, "Der Hölle Rache". I'm struggling to think of anyone else on the international opera scene at the moment who could be as convincing as Ernman is in both repertoires.

The timbre of the voice is sensationally beautiful - smooth textured with a gorgeous vibrato that can be removed or added to at will, a limpid legato and great dynamic control, excellent intonation and the sound even and well integrated across all registers from a very strong chest register to a gleaming top. She has a remarkable technique, supporting the voice in a three octave plus range - I have never heard Olympia's top notes so shiningly or solidly projected. Maybe the finest track on the disc is Vitellia's aria "Non Più Di Fiori" from La Clemenza di Tito which is ravishingly sung, and the low notes are wonderful to hear with a mezzo's chest register. "Der Hölle Rache" also benefits from the mezzo timbre in the lower portions, and sounds genuinely furious for once. The top F isn't exactly in tune the first time it comes, but she nails it the second time, and once again, the ringing vibrato up there is so satisfying to hear. The fact that there are these occasional very slightly flat notes shows that the recording has not been messed around with in terms of correcting the tuning digitally - something which is absolutely rife in some more famous singers CD recitals - and from live performances on youtube we already know that her intonation is generally faultless.

Neither do we get cookie cutter performances - in all of these very famous arias we get original choices, some risk taking, and characterful, interesting interpretations. So in Bellini's sometimes all too familiar "Casta Diva", here gorgeously sung, the phrases for once feel new and unexpected even although she is doing nothing radical, and in the Carmen arias we get some beautiful colouring of the line and interpolated notes. The only thing that I don't love is the aspirated coloratura and occasional lapses in pronunciation (especially in the sole German number here). But this seems cavilling when there is so much to enjoy.

As a lovely bonus we get two duets with Anne Sophie von Otter - the Barcarolle from Les Contes D'Hoffman and the Flower Duet from Delibes' Lakme. More beautiful renditions of these bonbons are difficult to imagine.

Here's "Non Piu Di Fiori", the aria from La Clemenza di Tito. Check out the superb chest register from 3:20, and the beautiful soprano like top at 4:30.

This Glyndebourne Fledermaus reveals already early in her career an eerie talent for physical and vocal characterisation, as well as a lack of vanity and sense of fun. The extremity of the musical choices I think are entirely fitting for this character, but are also not representative of the singing on the above CD.

Here she is in a live performance of Olympia's aria showing not only astonishing vocal control in high soprano music, but again a spontaneity and sense of fun that is infectious.

I have also ordered her Dido and Aeneas with Christopher Maltman and judging from this clip I am in for a treat. Comparing the voice here and in the present recording, it seems she pares down the voice significantly for the baroque repertoire.

Can we get her at the ROH very soon please?

Monday, 1 April 2013

Lulu at Welsh National Opera

Milton Keynes Theatre

copyright WNO/Clive Barda

Lulu is one of the most enigmatic operas ever composed. Cosi fan Tutte, Pelleas et Melisande and Parsifal are also operas which are often puzzled over, but at least these seem probe-able, if not solvable, by appeal to psychologising, interpretation, and knowledge of the composer's predilections and ideas. With Lulu there is no such guarantee: the meaning is either ultra closeted and personal, as is the case with most of Berg's music (the hidden gestures, encoded names etc. of the 19th century romantics taken to the nth degree) or simply vacant. The processes of construction essential to its creation hardly reveal themselves in the drama - there's the recapitulation of the three husbands as the three clients, but again there are so many enigmas here that knowing this barely elucidates anything beyond the much put upon symmetry of the piece. In Wozzeck Berg presents us with a world turned mad, but at least there's a logic to be thwarted - in Lulu, no such reality is established.

Lulu is difficult to stage because although the music is of the utmost intensity, obvious physical and emotional gestures are often (usually?) hard to find in the score - sometimes they're there, but more often than not, the brutal or disgusting happenings in the plot are barely reflected in the music, and always the score surges on with its unrelenting sensuality. Except in dance sections, it's not particularly evocative of setting either, and largely isn't expressionist in terms of being a psychic seismograph of the characters's psychological states like other 12 tone expressionist works of this period. There's a floating meaninglessness to it all, a dissociation and alienation of action and music, action and psychology - surely a reflection of Lulu's relationship with the world she finds herself a part of - a world of emotional extremes, but nightmarish, inexplicable ones that do not submit to analysis or reason.

The score is lush, erotically charged, an ultra dense, shuddering, throbbing, boiling, rippling canvas, maybe the most sheerly beautiful twelve tone score ever composed, and though it feels improvisatory and free it is as tightly controlled and precisely constructed as anything by the far more ascetic Schoenberg. The Lulu Suite presents the clearest case for the opera as a symphonic poem - all the lushest, most juicy portions of the score culled and collected together (just as the Drei Bruchstucke aus Wozzeck did for that opera) in a 33 minute symphony with most of the vocal lines cut. It's a far less oppressive piece without the tortured singing, and shows that the music is quite capable of existing separate from the words.

Director David Pountney makes a very good stab at trying to bring this opera into focus with a well thought out production which gains in potency through the evening. The curious circus metaphor episode that opens the show is extended intermittently into the opera, with characters donning animal costumes that are meant to reflect their personalities and influence their stage deportment - in practise I'm not sure how expressive this is partly because it's not taken far enough, and partly because it hardly seems supported by the music, but it's an interesting device to get things to cohere. Pountney overstuffs the piece with tangential and spurious imagery and symbolism - for example the animal tamer/Schigolch enters dressed as Wotan and Lulu dresses in apple coloured costumes apparently representating the fact that she is similar to Freia in Wagner's Das Rheingold: she keeps the other characters young (later they are seen to have temporarily aged when she is in prison). I (and it seems every other reviewer) would never have guessed this had I not gone to the pre show talk, and even when I did know, it hardly seemed like a huge stroke of insight. The corpses of Lulu's three husbands are hoisted up on hooks after their deaths, just as Lulu's costumes are lowered down - again Pountney says this is a reflection of the symmetries in the score and story, but visually this isn't clear and what registers is that the husbands hang over the rest of the play as hideous spectres.

Act I is probably the hardest to stage with its lightning fast exposition and highly episodic nature, and is the weakest here - it feels chaotic and unspecific, with the male characters not sufficiently differentiated, and the set entirely incidental to the action. Johan Engels' set is a circular metal frame work structure which loosely resembles a circus ring, with a spiral stair case at its centre. It never makes the vague spacial outlines of the score more concrete and is not properly integrated with Pountney's direction, and so is hard to commend. Pountney makes explicit the idea of alienation by encouraging stagey, cartoonish actions for the male characters here which again doesn't come off because the physicality is not quite specific enough. The frequent spoken dialogue is jarringly prerecorded (clearly not by the cast) and played loudly through speakers, which may be another attempt at alienation, and if so it works, but it also further fragments the dramatic flow and the audience's focus on the characters and to me again felt misjudged.

Happily, Act II is much stronger. Here the acting becomes much more natural and characters begin to interact with a degree of realism and even intimacy in the love scenes. Lulu's bed is comprised of huge sections of sagging, bulging flesh - a corpulent mound of languid excess and lethargic sensuality. The abstraction works well and serves to provide a much stronger impression than the semi real aspects of Act I. We are introduced to the tragic character of the Countess Geschwitz, hopelessly devoted to Lulu and very well played by Natascha Petrinsky - she becomes key to the emotional impact of Act III. The end of Act II is beautifully handled, Lulu's nudity not seeming at all gratuitous or shocking, but is instead powerfully revealing in a quite obvious but nonetheless potently metaphorical way. Act III reintroduces the animal characters but fails to conjure a party atmosphere - what hits home is the degradation and hopelessness that Lulu faces at the hands of her three clients now that she is forced to prostitute herself. The unforgiving cruelty and desperation of the interaction with her last client is almost too much to bear - the humour so black that death seems to be the only rational escape. The Countess' dying arietta is searingly direct and unexpectedly moving in an evening that has otherwise been rather light on emotional involvement.

The cast do well in a very challenging score, though one strongly gets the impression that very often they are stretched to their limits musically and so are not able to commit equally to the physical aspects of their portrayal. The exception is Marie Arnet who sails through the score on an ocean of calm, every note beautifully formed, with a silvery beauty and steadyness entirely befitting of the character. Her acting is similarly polished and calmly restrained - this was a very impressive and convincing interpretation of one of the most challenging roles in the repertoire. The other stand out cast member is Natascha Petrinsky Countess Geschwitz who superbly moulds her voice to the situation with a very wide palette of colours and intensities and she seems comfortable in any tessitura. It's not the most blended sound, and often is not even that beautiful (though enchanting sounds do also emerge from her throat,especially in the final scene) but always seems right - an exciting singer and one I'll be looking out for. Peter Hoare does a fine job as Alwa and is only occasionally overtaxed by the demands of his music. I also very much liked Richard Angas as Schigolch who is totally in the idiom and style of the music, declaiming it with a cabaret like precision and unstinting feel for the German language and style that sets him above his peers. Again it's hardly the most beautiful voice, but the intention is always precise and fully realised.

Lothar Koenigs' conducting presents the score unapologetically and with maximum energy, and though I enjoy Lulu to be played with more Viennese schmaltz (as if it were Korngold gone wrong), this was a clear headed and quite beautiful traversal of the score. The WNO orchestra are fully up to the demands of the music and achieve some wonderful things - a very satisfying account.

Nabucco at the Royal Opera House


It's interesting to note that while there are many composers who wrote one or two great operas without "warm ups" (e.g. Debussy, Ravel, Bartok, Beethoven, Enescu, Goldschmidt, Gershwin), the great "opera composers" whose works comprise the mainstay of the repertoire all had very humble beginnings in the genre before they found their true voices. Verdi is no exception, and his earliest efforts are pure bel canto creations very much in the mould of Donizetti but without his naive purity - Nabucco is simply clumsy and crude and looks backward to his models, without giving a hint of the genius that was to emerge much later.

I think opera fans who don't listen to other classical music often forget quite how strange the Bel Canto repertoire is in terms of musical history. To name the greatest of the bel cantists' contemporaries, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Berlioz were at this time pushing musical boundaries in every way imaginable, expanding the range and scope of musical expression and technique at an unprecedented rate. When compared directly to the incredible invention, sophistication and innovation of these masters, the bel cantists seem hopelessly limited and artistically static, producing score after score of the simplest imaginable musical material, constructed using harmonic clichés, incorporating almost none of the formal innovations of the last half century of music, and all to the most skeletal accompaniments - colour and atmosphere are as nothing compared to the other early romantics mentioned. It's not even that it's old fashioned, because none of the Classical masters would have dreamed of using such simplistic material, and the denial of development or tonal relationships as a way of building and exploring a musical idea is completely anathema to what the Classical composers aimed at.

When well sung, there is however something very potent about Bel Canto opera - a purity and shift of focus where the entire life of the music is in the melodic line - and when it works, it produces a quite magical effect that is unique to it. The opera Norma would be a case in point, but there are several other examples which are of similar quality.

Early in his career Verdi is very clearly aiming at this, but misses entirely, because he can't yet infuse the vocal line with particular character or meaning or even forward direction, and nor does he have the peerless instinct for dramatic situation that miraculously transforms and elevates the far fetched plots of his middle period operas into compelling dramas. The result is that Nabucco, his third opera, is a very long, confused and boring evening, which sets an undeniably dramatic plot (hampered by a weak libretto) to bland music with uninteresting characters.

Daniele Abbado's production updates the action to the 30s/40s/meh. It's still about jews, conflict etc., but the setting is essentially abstract, and the direction essentially lifeless. The set is a big sand pit, with large standing stones which might be buildings or grave stones littered about the place. Occasionally large wire mesh statues are brought on which probably represent important people/ideas/events. Everything is very grey. The back wall is used to project a sky, and sometimes video sequences which depict the exact same action of whatever the crowd are doing on stage - the only purpose of this then is to make it visually slightly more interesting. Additionally, this is the worst case of parking and barking I have seen in a long time: characters barely interact with or even address one another and deliver almost all their lines directly forward. Since everyone does this, the blame must be squarely placed at the feet of the director. At no point is it possible to care about what anyone is singing about. The ROH chorus is swelled to enormous size, but only make an impact during the famous Va pensiero chorus, when they are clustered nervously in a spot light in the middle of the stage.

I said the cast parked and barked and bark they did. The main quality that you could comment on is that everyone was very loud. Bel canto technique was very thin on the ground. The production's Nabucco, Leo Nucci, is just about to turn 71 (younger then than Domingo who will take over this role half way through the run) and though the voice is still very large, firm and in tune, the scooping into every upward moving interval is unbearable and the colour is monochrome. As Ismaele, tenor Andrea Caré also scoops into every high note. One of the principles of bel canto is clean attack, and I am amazed that the ROH, or even the conductor Nicola Luisotti find this to be acceptable. Vitalij Kowaljow is also very loud as Zaccaria, but the bottom of the range disappears, losing colour, texture and volume. This is simple miscasting which again denies the bel canto idea of equally blended registers. Abigaille is the least interesting and rewarding of the nine core Assoluta roles (a vocal ideal which Verdi is all too obviously trying to essay) but Liudmyla Monastyrska does an acceptable job of getting round the coloratura, whilst delivering stentorian decibels in equally powerful high notes and a heretofore unheard chest register (curiously the latter only kicks in quite low and isn't brought up enough to mix with the middle voice). Unfortunately, there's no real assumption of character, and loudness is not the same as intensity of expression. Hers is clearly a major voice, and technically she is very good, but either this is not her role, or there is some way to go towards really using the voice to express emotions and ideas. I don't blame the singers for not really being involved in this production, and none of the rest of the cast buck the trend. Nicola Luisotti does what he can in the pit but depressingly there's no way this lifeless mass of a production is going to be rescued by sprightly tempos or whatever else might enliven Verdi's score.

I can't face seeing this again, even to see Domingo in another ill advised baritone role. Avoid.