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Sunday, 9 March 2014

Review Catch up

ROH Carmen
ROH Don Giovanni
ROH Manon
ETO Paul Bunyan
ETO King Priam

I have been terrifyingly busy this past month, and this, combined with problems with my Google accounts in actually being able to post anything on the blog, has meant this blog has received a certain neglect of late. It's too late to post full reviews here, but here are a few reflections:

The new ROH Don Giovanni by Kasper Holten was certainly a better effort than his Eugene Onegin last season. The most superficially striking thing about it was the full stage projection, continually updating to project onto the moving, folding 3D set. I'm not sure how many will have realised quite what a technical feat this was. On the other hand, I got tired of the gimmick pretty quickly, and was irritated by the flickering edges caused by the combination of steep angles and pixels as the house turned. The non-descript, classless rotating house brings to mind the current Glyndebourne production and says as little. A common comment on Don Giovanni is that he is already on the decline and beset by problems at the beginning of the opera - we never actually see him wholly successfully seduce a woman as is boasted in Leporello's catalogue aria. Holten goes some way to changing this picture by making the women much more responsible for their liaisons with the Don. Just after "Orsai chi l'onore" for instance, during Ottavio's aria, Anna actually goes off to have sex with the Don, just hours after he has killed her father. A bit hard to credit, but we get the message - it takes two to tango. Holten also sees the Don's downfall as a descent into madness rather than a descent into hell. What causes this is guilt and the realisation that he lacks true love and intimacy: first he hovers around, dejected and forlorn during the three women's Act II arias, then then he is haunted by the ghost of the man he has accidentally killed. The finale is a bleak mad scene where everything drifts into nothingness, including the reactions of the other characters (which are cut). Overall it's not bad, and even after the gimmickry, it will do as a staple repertoire show. Holten never goes against the libretto, but his directorial choices always feel reasonable and "interesting", rather than engaging, moving or convincing. The cast were all very decent though for me lacked character.

The ETO's potentially exciting Spring season turned out to be disappointing for me. Paul Bunyan was a piece I'd never seen in the theatre, and Britten admirer though I am, I found it very hard going. What on earth were Britten and Auden thinking when they cooked it up? The heartless phoneyness of the cod-folk style reeks in every bar of text and music. The lack of dramatic line through what feels like an interminable duration makes it even harder to like. Not a piece I'd rush to hear or see again, aside from perhaps two pretty numbers. This production tried its best, but I was bored.

Also with the ETO, Tippett's King Priam. I thought I had heard this piece before and liked it but I must have had it confused with another of Tippett's operas - the music is uningratiating and oddly lacking in character and substance - quite unlike the ripeness of the early works, or mysterious twinkling oddness of the late ones. Anna Fleischle unhappily sci-fi inspired designs lack style and the stage space is extremely cramped. Acting also is as wooden as a bad sci-fi series, and none of the singing is quite beautiful enough to bring warmth to the stony hardness of the vocal writing. The orchestral pallette seems cramped and crude, but maybe these harsh timbres just need a larger space to resonate in? The libretto is full of platitudes and leaden, sullen characters, and by the time the chorus started running on stage for the battle singing "War! War! War!" whilst lamely swaying backwards and forwards with deer antlers, I was ready to give up.

Longer ago I saw the Zambello Carmen twice - once with Anita Rachvelishvili and Roberto Alagna (16/12/13) and once with Christine Rice and Yonghoon Lee (04/01/14). Zambello's production is surely due a renewal, and my guess is that Kasper Holten will have a shot at it, just as he has replaced her perennially unpopular Don Giovanni. Zambello is a director whose continued hiring at major opera houses is a mystery to me, and though her Carmen is nowhere near as bad as her Don Giovanni, it still doesn't offer many insights and is quite limited in how it treats the central characters. At least there's nothing in the characterisation that doesn't make sense: Carmen acts sexy and dominates the stage, Jose is suitably tortured and angry, Michaela is her usual wet self. But she never poses enough of a challenge to Carmen's carnality and sensuousness, and the moral dilemma of the drama seems token and by rote. The two casts proved interesting to compare. Rachvelishvili was a vocally very great Carmen I thought - power, accuracy, colour, sensuality, with a dark rawness in the sound, powerful chest notes, and a thrusting top. Alagna was vocally decent as Don Jose, but totally self involved acting wise, not connecting once with his stage partners. Vito Priante was vocally diminutive as the Torreador and simply miscast. Rice has a more polished sounding instrument that Rachvelishvili, and it's good to hear her again after a worrying and extended bought of illness. Another vocally very satisfying portrayal, though perhaps a little refined for my tastes - I'm a Callas admirer rather than a Price admirer in this role, to give two polar opposites. Tastes will differ. Lee can deliver terrifying decibels as Jose, and is not the most subtle singer, though he sang all the notes and was more interesting to watch dramatically than Alagna.

I saw the ROH Manon again with Ailyn Perez this time (click here for original review with Jaho). Perez proved to have a more pliant voice than Jaho, and she is more natural on stage, but the middle voice is lacking in resonance, and the lower voice a sliver, confirming what my thoughts after her Glyndebourne Falstaff last season (she is however much more suited to Manon than Alice Ford). Her cutesy smileyness, and dazzling good looks remind me of Danielle De Niese, but she is less magnetic on stage and the voice doesn't project as well in the theatre. Matthew Polenzani was even better than he was on opening night - a very beautiful performance of Des Grieux.

Hmm, a lot of negativity here. The main beauty of the last few weeks was the ENO Rigoletto that I just managed to post the review of. I feel like I've seen other things that I've simply forgotten to mention. Hmm. Not opera, but don't bother with the Sam Mendes' moribund King Lear at the NT with a very disappointing Simon Russell Beale in the title part, and the Duchess of Malfi at the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe is also worth missing (if it's still on), though I am excited to see how the space takes to an opera as it's a charmingly tiny theatre - Kasper Holten's production of L'Ormindo will be starting there very soon. Oh, and go and see the Lego Movie.

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