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Sunday 20 November 2011

Eugene Onegin


This was quite enjoyable. It didn't quite work that well and isn't as good a production as many seem to think, but there are lots of lovely details, and it's worth going to see. Deborah Warner appears to be a fairly talented director, but more in her sense of telling a cohesive, involving story, than in her visual sense (the sets I found clunky), or even, strangely, in the way the characters act moment to moment on stage. Of course her starting point is one of the finest operas ever written, but the sense of story arc for all the characters I thought was brilliantly achieved, the pacing almost always superb. The action was updated, as so often, to the time the piece was composed - the late 19th century, so it still looks "period" enough and romantic enough that people who like "traditional" stagings will still be able to escape into it. (I'm not one of these people, I have no preference for period or updated productions, I just want it to be beautiful and make sense. It's all I ask.)

The first act was set in a cavernous barn, and the opening "number" with its focus on the plight of women at the hands of men (with only female maids bustling around in the background) I already found more moving than usual - it wasn't just the sort of pastoral scene setting approach that usually is the norm. (Is this a feminist opera? Certainly the women are by far the strongest, most intelligent, most measured characters in the piece.) Unfortunately I'd seen the same sort of set much better done recently at the National Theatre in their superlative production of The Cherry Orchard. What really didn't work though was having Tatyana's bedroom also in the barn. Not onl did this make no sense but also the huge size of it took away from the extraordinary intimacy of this scene. She barricades herself in with chairs and throws her mattress across the floor, but when Filippyevna comes back she seems to think nothing of this. Mental. But then we get wonderful directorial touches such as Onegin kissing Tatyana after his chastising monologue in the next scene, before coolly making his exit. Truly amazing how much this simple action reveals so much about his character.

The second and third acts feature a shiny silver floor, and it's not immediately obvious why this is the case... it seems out of place in the shabby home where the party scene takes place. But then for the duel scene, the curtain rises on a misty marsh, by far the most beautiful set of the evening, the silver floor, greyish sky and few desolate trees providing one of the most evocative settings I've ever seen for this scene. But then the silvered side wall was terribly badly made which partially ruined the visuals. Why this lack of attention to visual detail when the rest was so great? Lensky's monologue was beautifully delivered, but unfortunately Onegin, as his emotions become more extreme, reverts to ever more hammy acting to demonstrate this. He gives Lensky a big hug before the duel which is laughable. And by the third act he's writhing on the floor or kneeling with arms outstretched facing the audience directly rather than Tatyana. Stuff like this makes one think of West End musicals, rather than the intimate drama of this Pushkin tale. The set to the third act is badly thought out - several huge columns in rows which means that it's very hard to see the action a lot of the time, until they just stand in front of them, at which point the set becomes a passive backdrop which the characters don't in any way interact with. It also just looks cheap. But then the many mirrors within the plot are again matched by a nice directorial touch - Tatyana kisses Onegin after she says "goodbye for ever", which summarises all the reversals that have taken place, whilst also being an immensely powerful emotional gesture and signifier of the two protagonists' defeat by circumstances and stupidity.

The singing was uniformly excellent - about as good a cast that you could ever expect at the ENO. Everyone sings beautifully, Audun Iversen making a vocally compelling Onegin, though his acting is fairly appalling, and he's hardly the romantic Darcy like heart throb that he should be. He's just mostly quite boring, and as I already said, in the final scene he acts like he's in a west end musical. Much the same could be said of Toby Spence as Lensky, who completely overacts (though his character is more adolescent than Onegin), but the voice sounds absolutely magnificent, gleaming and full, and he's giving it everything he's got. Truly wonderful piano singing too. I was trying to work out what his ideal repertoire would be: it's not pingy enough for the Italian rep, and not big enough for German stuff. Mozart and Janacek? Probably French rep would suit him wonderfully - can imagine him as a great Pelléas. Amanda Echalaz is a great Tatyana and a very good singer. What's odd is that there's a little bit of squall in her middle register, say B up to the passagio, but the top is absolutely radiant, and the fact that we heard the top so rarely reminds us of how low lying this soprano part is. She's a good actress too on the whole, just lacking the last measure of vocal finesse and gestural subtlety that would make her a big "name". All the minor parts were also superbly cast: Diana Montague's Madam Larina and Catherine Wyn-Rogers' Filippyevna made a fantastically moving in the opening scene, and Brindley Sherratt a very well sung Gremin. Claudia Huckle as Olga was really wonderful too - so even and strong and beautiful vocally, according to her website, she's a true contralto. A real discovery.

The orchestral playing was mixed I thought: Every one of the wonderful cello tunes had out of tune notes, there was a general lack of passion to the playing, though several woodwind solos were meltingly delivered. Pacing from conductor Edward Gardner was superb, but as I say he couldn't rouse the players enough to produce something really special. The thing is, it's so well composed that even a mediocrely played performance will still make it's effect on some level.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this evening, and despite my complaints it somehow hangs together well and is a good night at the theatre. Go see it!

Tuesday 8 November 2011

La Sonnambula

Royal Opera House

La Sonnambula is hardly a staple of the ROH's repertoire so it was nice to get a chance to see this opera. Or at least it should have been. I absolutely loved Eglise Gutiérrez's voice in Cendrillon last season, so was very much looking seeing her again here. Youtube reveals a truly staggering voice: just listen to the final section of this Caro Nome. On the evidence of that video and the singing I heard in Cendrillon it appears she has one of the most beautiful operatic instruments on the stage today. And up close I'm sure it is. But heard at greater length and more exposed it doesn't translate in the theatre. The basic problem is that the sound is far too covered - lots of sopranos do this in their lower range to darken the tone when they are singing roles that are too heavy for them (*cough cough* Gheorghiu) - but sopranos can also choose to do this higher up, like tenors and baritones have to do to negotiate the passagio. It gives a feeling of control to the performer, and sounds absolutely fantastic to the soprano herself. But across a concert hall, it gives the sound an occluded, domed quality, like a film or a cap that is covering the sound. While it can be a beautiful occasionally for a floated pianissimo high note (and it worked for the fairy godmother in Cendrillon), if it's done all the time, it quickly becomes very boring and that's unfortunately what was happening here with Gutiérrez - there's nothing exciting in the sound, no edge, no sense of risk. Every. Single. Note was placed which is not what you want in this of all repertoire - what's called for is thrilling, full throttle risk taking, not merely accuracy. And unfortunately it wasn't even that accurate - this constant placing meant rhythms were often wayward, and surprisingly there was more than the occasional out of tune passage and high note.

Elena Xanthoudakis had a less beautiful voice perhaps, but at least she could thrill us with it, and as a result was much more satisfying as love rival Lisa. The way she pottered around was funny also. I don't know if Gutiérrez is a poor actress or whether it was the fault of the awful production, but it was hard to care too much about the central story. Marco Arturo Marelli designed and directed the original production (revival direction by Andreas Reisner), and apparently it's set in some sort of mountain lodge/hotel/ward, not at all clear who the patients or staff are. It appears Amina is a waitress in the beginning before she gets changed into her wedding dress in the hall! Yeah I have no idea what they were thinking either. It's a single set all the way through, sort of 20s/30s continental looking with a view of the alps out of the back window. My god is it dull. Michele Pertusi sings beautifully and has some character, doing his best, but it's a bad sign when the Count Rodolfo is the best voice on stage. Celso Albelo can basically sing the part (there was a cringeworthy moment in the unnacompanied portion of the duet), but is one of the dullest tenors I've ever heard. No physical acting to speak of (obviously) and worse in this repertoire, no vocal acting at all - a single tone colour all the way. As soon as he started singing I found myself drifting away from the action, my eyes suddenly caught by the auditorium lighting, or some seat detail. I couldn't help it. Everyone else sung well actually, and Elizabeth Sikora as Teresa, Amina's foster mother, displayed some really beautiful things in her voice, small though the part was. Young Artist Jihoon Kim was good as Alessio.

Seriously though, what a waste of time. This repertoire needs the singers to carry it off, but providing the score with staticism and tedium in the direction and set design really doesn't help matters. A story which is premised on simple idiocy is hard enough to be engaged by as it is.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Jonas Kaufmann

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

I've seen Kaufmann once before in the wonderful production of Adriana Lecouvreur that the ROH did last season, though on that occasion, I felt he perhaps wasn't singing at his best. Of course I have listened to his albums, and on record he is certainly my favourite non specialist tenor of the last thirty years. When the mic is up close to catch his artistry, there is really nothing like the glorious beauty of the voice and the astonishing technique.

Whenever one knows a voice very well from recordings, it is always interesting to hear them in real life from across a hall. I was given seats last minute by the wonderfully generous @robmuz which were near the front of the back stalls, which is apparently an acoustic sweet spot in the hall. Though he wasn't loud, I could hear every note that was sung, even his most delicate pianissimos, somewhat of a Kaufmann speciality. The RFH is famously appalling for being able to hear singers however.

The first half was mostly Verismo rep: Cielo e mar from La Gioconda, Giulietta! son io from the Zandonai Romeo e Giulietta, Addio alla madre from Cavalleria Rusticana, with the flower song from Carmen representing the French repertoire. While on record he sings these all magnificently, I found these slightly disappointing here - somehow the radiant fullness of the voice didn't shine through to where I was sitting, and well sung though they were it was difficult to be too moved - you could feel that people were just waiting for the climactic high note, and the applause for these was proportional the how high and how long and how loud that note was. His Italian is perfect though, and his technique is unbelievable - the messa di voce and high pianissimos are second to none. Of course it didn't help that aside from the Bizet this is all schlocky second rate stuff. What also didn't help was that after every aria we'd get an entirely pointless and virtually unrelated orchestral intermezzo. Yes, sure he needs time to rest and get in character for the next aria, but there was such a flagrant sense of padding here, and the constant stopping and starting made it hard for anyone to get too involved (audience or performers).

I actually liked many of the orchestral numbers - mostly quite easily listening, but unfortunately always played so sloooooowly! The overture to I Vespri Siciliani is actually genuinely lovely, as is the Overture to Act 4 from La Wally (Catalani is my favourite of the post Verdi Italian opera composers, by far the most harmonically interesting and lush - reminds me often of Massenet in that regard). Both were here well played I thought, with the Royal Philharmonic strings playing wonderfully all evening. The brass often sounded dodgy however, especially in fast passages.

The second half was much better. After the orchestral Bacchanale from Saint-Saëns Samson (why?) and another piece of Verismo tat (Un dì all'azzuro spazio from Andrea Chenier by Giordano), very well sung of course, we got the prelude to Lohengrin Act 3, and finally the meat of the recital had arrived. Winterstürme from Die Walküre was truly superbly sung, the sound now completely matching the repertoire, and it just poured out of him. Then the celestially beautiful Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin and straight into the Gralserzählung from the same opera - such sensitivity to the text and for me the finest singing of the evening. In the spell binding central pianissimo he held us all rapt, not a sound from the entire audience which had been rather noisy and coughey until then - truly extraordinary. Would have been worth it just for that.

As so often, the encores (all four of them), were almost the best bit (and would have been by some margin had it not been for the Wagner). I have no idea why people are so keen to run away after these things! The four encores were L'anima ho stanca, Du bist die Welt für mich, Vesti la giubba and Ombra dì nube. Du bist die Welt für mich is so schmaltzy and just unbelievably gorgeous - the orchestra sounding fantastic, and Kaufmann singing so seductively it was hard not to just smile and laugh. And the final number, Ombra di nube by Refice, sung sotto voce throughout was also extremely special, for me the best italian singing of the evening.

He really is at the height of his powers now. Or can he go further? Apparently Otello, Siegfried and Tristan are coming in 5 years time. Can we get him in London to sing Lohengrin please? Soon?

Sunday 23 October 2011

ROH: Der fliegende Holländer

Sitting in the amphitheatre I have to say that this was one of the most starkly beautiful productions I've seen at the Royal Opera House. The opening curtain, a slowly waving blue sheet with light projected through a waterfall hidden behind the sheet is really maybe the most beautiful thing I've ever seen on that stage. The actual stage when it is revealed, the exterior of a ship hull, made concave, is bold and lovely (and very well lit throughout), the simple placement of ropes which cast curving shadows across it make for another understatedly beautiful scene. Then the factory spinning scene again makes a strong visual impact, set designer Michael Levine and lighting designer David Finn working wonderfully together here and throughout.

We've been so lucky for beautiful Wagner stagings this year in the south of England - as well as this, the also stark, but visually arresting ROH Tannhauser and the wonderful Glyndebourne Meistersinger. The ENO Parsifal was less visually alluring, though it had its moments.

Where this production fails a bit is in making clear the strangenesses of Wagner's story - and the metaphysical side of Wagner's intentions are rarely if ever explored - as it stands its just presented as ghost/love story which means it's sometimes a bit hard to swallow. The love triangle seems a bit of a forced way of adding drama to the situation, and none of the characters change throughout the drama. It's not unenjoyable, just is sometimes a bit unbelievable character wise (I'm full aware that this story is fairly unbelievable as it is). I never once felt bored though and the pacing is great, always ramping up to that fantastic climactic scene.

Musically I thought it was very strong. An extremely good cast has been assembled here. Egils Silins makes a magnificent sounding Dutchman, the huge voice rounded and clear, and not a hint of wobble. Anja Kampe made a wonderful Senta, vocally at least. Again it's a large voice, but also extremely beautiful, glamorous and lovely, with the floating timbre of a lyric, and a powerful chest register. Her ballad aria was superbly sung - she has the technique to be equally beguiling in the loudest and most intimate passages, unlike so many Wagner singers. Only in the highest top notes did she have a little difficulty, and occasionally sounded a little strained and slightly flat. But no matter, it's a superb voice. Unfortunately she did not move well on stage, looking always rather dowdy and awkward in her actions. Her jealous lover Erik was played by Endrik Wottrich who I found disappointing as Florestan in last season's Fidelio, but was here in brilliant voice, the burnished sound not showing a hint of strain or stridency, sounding always manful and heroic. Really ideal then: he'd surely be a great Siegfried - he seemed underutilised here! John Tessier's lyric tenor made for a beautiful Steersman's song and Stephen Milling made an equally good Daland.

I have been a Jeffrey Tate fan ever since hearing his magnificent Te Kanawa Arabella, and the clarity, detail and warmth of his approach shone through here, even if it was slow to get started. The orchestra didn't once cover the singers (without sacrificing impact) which is so rare that it comes as a real surprise when it does happen - Tate is clearly extremely concerned with his singers and presenting them in the best light. Such a shame that he has not conducted here for so long, and lets hope he is engaged again by the ROH soon. The orchestra were on generally good form, warming up with Tate towards the end. The chorus were sounding on absolute top form too, so powerful and vital. The spooky bit where the ghost sailors appear had them errupting from under ground was an amazing moment vocally and visually.

Very enjoyable, and I hope to go again.

Saturday 22 October 2011

Glyndebourne On Tour: Don Pasquale


Donizetti comedies are not exactly my favourite corner of the operatic repertoire, and Don Pasquale is not a great bel canto score, but I was hopeful for this after the surprising brilliance of Glyndebourne's Elixir in the Festival this year. This is a new production directed by Mariame Clément, designed by Julia Hansen with lighting by Bernd Purkrabek, and was a complete treat from start to finish. We are simply and ingeniously introduced to all of the characters by Dr Malatesta, the central machinator of the piece, who slinks through the various rooms of the revolving set as the others all sleep. The sets themselves are simple, but beautifully thought out, each character having their own room which is reflected in their costumes. Dozens of delightful details like this make it a joy to watch and lose yourself in. The four colourful and strongly differentiated costumes of the main four characters are contrasted with the pristine white 18th century french elegance of the chorus (who must love it!), who watch the action from outside the revolving stage as a tittering, fluttering, upper class theatre audience - not just an amusing touch, but an often breathtaking spectacle. The last scene, where the rendezvous has been set up, reveals an outrageously gorgeous clouded azure sky with magenta and tangerine sunset, the chorus sitting on the lawn, eating their (white) picnics: a clear send up of Glyndebourne's indulgently beautiful tradition. The lighting is imaginative and very effective throughout and is in perfect accord with the sets, costumes and direction.

Jonathan Veira played Don Pasquale with appropriate humour, pomposity and warmth, with his extraordinary rubber like face and superb comic timing. Unfortunately the voice is slightly lacking in volume and beauty, though these are probably not the most important characteristics in this role. Enea Scala played the role of Ernesto, in this production hopelessly adolescent, dandyish, romantic and sulky. As well as being a great "straight man" for the other characters to mock, he delivered some beautiful legato singing and truly thrilling top notes without a hint of strain. In this production the doctor (played by Andrei Bondarenko) and Norina (played by Ainhoa Garmendia) are having an affair, and run off into the sunset at the end leaving a heart broken Ernesto - Bondarenko's well sung, serious and slightly sinister presence made this a very nice little twist. I wasn't super keen on Garmendia's Norina it has to be said - the coloratura was all rather laboured, with a large vibrato and not terribly attractive tone. Not really her fach, and I yearned for Danielle de Niese's acting ability, vocal talents and sexual confidence after her fantastic performance this summer as Adina. Is she too famous for Glyndebourne on tour? Certainly not bad though.

The orchestra did well though had very little of their own to do of course, almost completely relegated to dutiful accompaniment as they are, and I could never complain about Enrique Mazzola's conducting. The singers were always audible and well supported which was obviously good.

All in all though a great evening out at the opera and one that I would strongly recommend even if the music doesn't appeal. Delightful.

Sunday 14 August 2011

Glyndebourne V and VI: Britten and Dvorak

The Turn of the Screw


There is a not uncommon view that The Turn of the Screw is Britten's greatest opera, and though I don't agree, I can see why - the masterly construction, beauty of the score, brilliant use of the chamber ensemble and in a good performance the emotional impact are all undeniably compelling. For me though, the story doesn't quite come off in its operatic setting, the ambiguities of the plot necessarily clarified and weakened by the operatic medium - above all, the ghosts are visible and they sing - there can be no doubt that they are real (at least in this staging, and in Britten's mind also), which to me makes the story far less interesting. There are certainly ambiguities and uncertainties that remain in the story as presented by Britten/Piper, and their goal was to stay as close to the original as possible, but I'm not sure how successful they were. This 2006 staging by Jonathan Kent is extremely spartan, the major feature being a very large sheet of windows that rotates and tilts, creating variously the barrier between indside and outside the house, a green house, and the surface of a lake. Most of the stage is white, with scene changes dealt with using revolving stage sections. I wasn't that great a fan of it all - too little atmosphere was evoked, and it never really seemed disturbing - the ghosts are too obviously present, too closely in contact with the kids, the set too often on the move to create the crushing stillness and sadness of the book. And what did it being updated to the 1950s (the third updating to this decade this season!) really add? Not really much more to say about it.

The casting was strong. Miah Persson was the governess, standing in for the pregnant Kate Royal, and made a convincing character on stage. The voice is certainly pretty, but lacks variation in colour, and the top is a bit tweety and shrill at the moment for the full lyric roles that she undoubtedly will come to inhabit. Susan Bickley's voice has a very particular steely edge, but she was excellent as Mrs Grose, with some surprisingly beautiful pianissimo top notes. Toby Spence and Giselle Allen as the ghosts were both strong vocally, delivering some lovely singing, but as I have said, I objected to how concrete and commonplace they seemed - no spectral mysteriousness in sight. The two kids were also good - Thomas Parfitt as Miles an excellent treble, stunningly lovely in his aria, and Joanna Songi despite the fact that she has now graduated from Cambridge, was convincingly girly and cute (and small!) as Flora with her girlish, choral voice.

As I've said before about Rusalka, it's one of my favourite operatic scores. This Glyndebourne production, directed by Milly Still and designed by Rae Smith, doesn't try to do anything too radical with the thing, and like the Grange Park Opera production I attended, feels subtly updated and modern, though not at the expense of the fairy tale aspects of the opera. I can't say I was that enamoured with this production either - it was hardly a feast for the eye (and I think it was trying to be), the psychological action seemed slightly neglected or at least unimaginatively presented, and the sexyness of the score and libretto is hammed up to the max whenever possible. And I'm nitpicking here, but the scientist in me wants to reject the furry mermaid tails (mammals are pretty much the opposite of fish with regards to surface texture). I don't have that much to say about this production really. It was fine, but strangely, I found myself hankering after the detail and sensitivity of the Grange Park Production, even if I didn't much enjoy what that one looked like either.

The singing at least was decent. Dina Kuznetsova made a fine Rusalka, generally singing nicely and good in the more dramatic, loud moments of the score, but without it ever seeming truly remarkable. One annoyance was that there was very little legato as the line was constantly broken up her consonants - the result was often lots of little yelps, rather than a sustained phrase - the biggest casualty of this approach was the Song to the Moon, which felt disappointing. Acting wise I didn't feel like there was much of a journey for her, which is to say I wasn't too engaged with Rusalka's plight this time. Pavel Cernoch as the Prince was in excellent voice, and did this extremely demanding part justice without ever sounding strained or overtaxed. Occasionally a bit more volume might have been nice, but his is a very lovely lyric-spinto sound and he did well. Again though, the character was hard to relate to and seemed a bit two dimensional. Larissa Diadkova was OK as Jezibaba, and can definitely sing the part, though often got behind the orchestra. And her characterisation went about as far as the costume, which is to say a Babushka outfit. Sigh. Not a patch on Emma Carrington in this role. I did very much like Tatiana Pavlovskaya as the foreign princess - she clearly relished this minor but major role, swanning around in expensive dresses with a smirk on her face, and of course that brilliant final scene where she damns the prince. Mischa Schelomianski as Vodnik, Rusalka's father, impressed with his powerful delivery - it's another fantastic supporting role. The other minor roles were all well sung.

I have to say that I was disappointed with the conducting of Andrew Davis. The LPO players were OK, but it all felt a bit subdued and featureless - not much commitment from either party. At least the singers were never swamped. But I wanted either more schmaltz or more incisiveness, something to put a stamp of personality on the performance.

None of it was bad by any means, and I don't rescind my earlier claim that Glyndebourne is the UK's best opera house, but I didn't feel the same elation during either of these performances as I had when seeing Meistersinger, Don Giovanni or L'Elisir D'amore earlier in the festival.

Monday 4 July 2011

Cendrillon at the ROH

I've confessed my love of Massenet before, and always relish the opportunity to get to know another of his forgotten works from the backwaters of the catalogue. Cendrillon is hardly a great opera, or even a great score, but if like me you have a sweet tooth, and admire the suavity and loveliness of Massenet's idiom, this is an evening of delights.

The story is Cinderella, pretty much exactly as we know it. It's not a subtle reimagining either - just takes the tale at face value and presents the story as it is. This production, directed by Laurent Pelly with sets by Barbara De Limburg, doesn't try to clutter it and make it something it's not: it's just elegant and lovely. Every wall is covered in the text of the fairy tale, and the set keeps folding out and backwards - all very simple and beautifully done. The gates to the palace, and horse and carriage, continue this text theme and the text is again used to create a starry sky. Other than this the focus is on the characters, with superbly imaginative and lavish costumes designed by Pelly also.

Set pieces, like the ballroom scene with the princesses all presenting themselves to the prince work really well, but the more serious central love story falls a bit flatter, with a particularly poorly directed scene in the third act where Cinderella and the Prince can't find each other even although they're just metres away from each other (it later transpires that the scene was a dream. I'm still not going to let them off). There's lots of lovely little touches though, like the magical entrance of the Fairy Godmother with her imps being identical copies of Cinderella, the actions of the horses of Cinderella's coach, the individuality of all the princesses, the improbably large hips bestowed on Cinderella's step mother. It charms and is imaginative, and does far more than could be expected from the rather meagre libretto.

The cast is probably the best the ROH has had all year.

Joyce DiDonato is Cinderella, and the music fits her like a glove. She's a superstar of course, and she's a hugely likable stage presence. The voice doesn't quite have the last degree of technical polish that would make her a true great though - high notes reveal a slight flutter when singing quietly, the messa di voce that the role of Cinderalla requires not quite coming off exactly. Additionally, her coloratura is heavily aspirated. I really liked her though, and she's a singer with class.

This piece is a bit of a mezzo fest, with Prince charming also being a mezzo part - here Alice Coote takes on the role which she does very well (as we've come to expect from all her travesti roles). Unfortunately its nowhere near as grateful vocally as the part of Cendrillon, but Coote still sings it nicely. This opera is rather uneven musically which is probably the reason for its neglect: the two big duets between the romantic leads are nice, rather than passionate and beautiful, and pass by without quite managing to be the big set pieces they're clearly intended to be. Much better are Cinderella's monologues, where we're in familiar Manon and Thais territory, and Massenet even goes so far as to make a reference back to Manon: Cinderella bids farewell to her grandfather's chair when she plans to run away. Also fine are the tender interchanges between Cinderella and Pandolfe, her father, here unfortunately sung by a truly awful Jean-Philippe Lafont. It's a huge bass voice but completely ruined by an enormous wobble that he manages to wrestle under control only very very occasionally.

Great too are the comedy elements, and this production is genuinely very funny. Best of all is Ewa Podles as Cinderella's step mother. I have a thing for women's voices that have extremely powerful chest registers, something I hugely admire in Callas and Horne, Fleming, and recently Elizabeth DeShong too. Podles is that extremely rare vocalist that can manage the true tief Alt rep, but is just as powerful and pure when she strays higher, the sound rich and deep and beautifully even. She's technically brilliant too and this role is a gift for her: she can do its extraordinary vocal demands justice and the comedy acting is just perfect.

But the greatest discovery for me was Eglise Gutiérrez as the fairy godmother. This is a really virtuoso coloratura role, with three extended scenes of vocal fireworks, which I think very few current singers could do full justice to. I'd never heard Gutiérrez before, but I was just bowled over here - superb technique, wonderful control, with the most delicately beautiful pianissimos floating effortlessly into the auditorium. The whole voice gushes with harmonics and overtones, the silken vibrato vibrant and ravishing, and I have to say I think it's the most beautiful voice that the ROH has had this year. And finally someone who can trill! She's doing Sonnambula at the ROH next season and I will be clamouring to get tickets. The last portion of this youtube video (4.27 onwards) gives you an idea.

Glyndebourne IV: L'elisir d'amore


I didn't come to this performance expecting much, but after yesterday's Rinaldo disappointment, I was once again bowled by the quality of this evening at Glyndebourne: the attention to detail in the production, the singing, the comedy - Glyndebourne have made something really special here.

This Annabel Arden production, a revival, is set in the 50s (I think opera directors need to be told that other decades are available for updating into as well) in a Mediterranean village square, and though this makes the quack potion seller around which the plot is centred far less credible, it doesn't matter at all, because a) it's a Donizetti comedy, and b) it's done with so much love and warmth and style that you can't help but be carried away by it. What's so surprising about this opera is how good the libretto is - in a good production like this one, it provides a brilliant and insightful (not to mention genuinely witty) commentary on the nature of human lust, love and relationships. It helps when the acting and direction is as detailed and subtle as it is here, and against the odds I really felt that I was watching believable characters on stage. All this from a Donizetti comedy - not the place you usually go for insight into the human condition! Musically, this is far from my favourite bel canto score it has to be said, but I almost forgot this tonight - and the cast were very good.

First: Danielle de Niese as Adina. I have listened to and not enjoyed her three recital discs - some of the singing is really very poor. But tonight it was almost like a different voice and I've never heard her sing so well. She started out rather tweety sounding, the vibrato very narrow and fast (nerves?), but she got better and better as the night went on, the sound relaxing and opening out, and by the second half she was on fire. In fact, as the music got harder she got better, and in the virtuosic final scene where she declares her love for Nemorino, she was easily better than anyone in the Rinaldo production I had seen the night before. I think she has improved a lot in the last year - I was seriously impressed and surprised. She's also a fantastic stage animal, moving so naturally, acting beautifully, vocally as well as physically, and of course she's absolutely gorgeous (even more so on stage than in real life I think). She really is close to being the ideal Adina, with the requisite sexual confidence, coquettishness and vulnerability to make the role really convincing and even interesting, and as she proved here, she's exactly right vocally too. I'm a total convert after being extremely skeptical. What a talent.

Stephen Costello is a very decent singer, and delivered some of the most pingy tenor singing as Nemorino that I've heard in a while, though the voice is too intense most of the time for my taste, and the tone isn't varied all that much. The other annoying thing is that he slides up to virtually every high note above a D, starting it the semitone below without vibrato, staying there for a quarter of a beat, then moving to the proper note. Una furtiva lagrima was well sung, but this vocal mannerism spoiled it for me. He plays the part well - dumb but ardent, and inviting real pity (in a way that Pavarotti could just NEVER manage). And nice to finally hear a tenor who can actually sing a role for a change - haven't experienced too many of them this season - so I don't want to complain too much!

Paolo Gavanelli shouted his way through too much of the role of Dr Dulcamara, but is fine, and does what's required for the laughs. In this production he has an assistant (played by James Bellorini) who communicates only in mime, and we realise why he's so good at conning people: he's a showman and a performer, and Arden extends the idea of his story telling "performance" aria/duet with Adina, to a few of his other numbers, always supported dramatically by the antics of his assistant. It's a nice touch and one that makes the characters far more appealing.

The Glyndebourne chorus were on very good form as were the London Philharmonic under Enrique Mazzola - simple and uncluttered, letting the voices shine and the action speak for itself.

I (and as far as I could judge, everyone else) left the theatre feeling uplifted and delighted, and above all surprised - that this old warhorse could feel so fresh and alive again, that it could be done so tellingly, and also that De Niese was so fantastic. Highly recommended.

Sunday 3 July 2011

Glyndebourne III: Rinaldo


I have to admit: early Handel is a bit of a blind spot for me (and much late Handel for that matter). Whereas with Puccini I at least understand what people are getting out of it, with Handel I'm not quite so sure. The plots are so thin, the characters so stock and lacking in depth, the action so slow moving. In my Meistersingers review I complained of the dangers of directors "doing stuff" to Wagner, whereas in Handel you basically have to "do stuff" to it directorially in order to make it viable as drama. The music too is so predictable, and aside from the very obvious highlights that most scores have, so much of it seems churned out and done by rote. I have often wondered why I adore Bach so much and then am so indifferent to Handel (excepting a few arias), when superficially they are quite similar. Someone recently (I forget who) defined the difference for me: whereas Handel always does what's expected, Bach always does something unexpected. This alone doesn't explain my feelings towards each, but captures something very significant I think. I wasn't much moved by this performance so I wont be able to write anything too interesting. But here goes.

Robert Carsen's production deals with the problems of Rinaldo in a rather bold way - he has fun with it, and while not quite taking the piss, definitely plays it for laughs and creates comic situations out of moments in the libretto that aren't meant to be comic. I heard people grumbling in the interval about "directors not being able to just present the piece as intended", but really this opera would be unbearable if all that was presented was what the libretto gave us: the characters are about as deep as a puddle, and the plot is completely feeble. What Carsen does is set the whole thing in a public school, with people dressing up as knights (the Furies are goths), and while this initially seems to cheapen the thing by lowering all the crossed love stories to schoolboy/school girl crushes, the approach actually vindicates itself later, when the characters start doing things so ludicrous, that even the best "serious" production wouldn't be able to render such a crass plot believable or engaging. I don't want to ruin too many of the jokes, but it is often quite funny. In the end it all turns out to be the school boy Rinaldo's day dream, which is the most sense it could possibly make (and explains the teacher in leather bondage gear!), and rather than being an irritating revelation actually paradoxically allows you to accept the events of the evening.

It's not an unqualified success though. It's all a bit grey and bare to the point of being unfinished looking. And Carsen doesn't quite manage to stem the tedium of large tracts of the opera - apart from anything, its hard to think of enough for the characters to do during the arias, because the text gives you so little!

I wasn't too enamoured with the cast in general. Goffredo and Rinaldo were both cast as mezzos (Varduhi Abrahamyan and Sonia Prina, respectively), and neither had a particularly beautiful voice - both sounded very similar, with extremely fast, wide vibratos. Nor was the sound at all big, and timbrally, I wondered at first whether they were affecting their voices to sound more like countertenors. Neither voice was particularly flexible either, with some of the most heavily aspirated coloratura I've ever heard coming from both of them, though Prina's was particularly bad. There was almost no note at all in the most demanding passages, the machine gun like rattle of the coloratura becoming really quite unpleasant and ugly.

Just an aside about coloratura and aspirating. For those that don't know, it can be confusing when it's mentioned so I'll briefly explain it here. It is much, much easier to articulate fast coloratura passages by aspirating them. This means doing rough breathing at the start of every note so that (say) a fast scale to "Aa", becomes "ha ha ha ha ha ha ha". It is not at all necessary however to do this, and the result is far less beautiful than the much more technically challenging feat of maintaining the legato line and changing note without this interruption in the breath: Callas, Sills, Horne, Fleming and Battle are all examples of singers who wonderfully prove this and manage the hardest coloratura passages without aspirating. The classic (and probably most influential) case of aspirating in current singing is Cecilia Bartoli and I don't like it when she does it, but of course the timbre of the voice is so extraordinary and beautiful that its hard not to forgive her. But in general it's a lazy and easy way to execute these passages (try it yourself: sing a fast scale to "ha" and then to "aa" making sure that not even a hint of "h" is creeping in, and you'll see how easy the former is compared to the latter), and it's just not as good.

The other girls were better. Brenda Rae was a sexy Armida (the one with bondage gear) and has an interesting voice - it's quite a pretty youthful lyric instrument, with a lovely top, though weak lower register. Her opening line, "Furie Terribili" was delivered with incredible force and fire, though in the rest of the evening she only shone when she ascended powerfully above the treble stave. One to watch. Anett Fritsch had stepped in late as Almirena, Rinaldo's love interest, and she clearly also has a nice voice, again lacking in power, but she delivered Lascia Ch'Io Pianga very nicely indeed. Tim Mead sung the smallish part of Eustazio, a counter tenor role, and he clearly possesses a very beautiful instrument - why didn't they hire him as Rinaldo? I've liked Luca Pisaroni in things before at Glyndebourne, but the timbre was rather harsh tonight and the coloratura was horribly muddied by his vibrato.

After the incandescent performance of Don Giovanni they gave under Robin Ticciati (who it turns out is going to take over from Jurowski as principal conductor of the festival in 2013 - woo hoo! Both are great, but so glad that the replacement is so wonderful), The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in this felt a bit disappointing - none of the energy and passion was there this time, and the sound lacked the body, colour and bustle that I enjoy from Baroque orchestras. Much of the scoring for Rinaldo is very thin with just two string lines as well as continuo, so this might have been the issue, but either way, it didn't quite do it for me. And there was some truly awful oboe and bassoon playing - horribly out of tune, and flubbed solo lines.

There was something a bit odd about the evening as a whole musically - like something was missing. Part of the problem was that virtually all the roles are in the mezzo range, but I think the lack of orchestral warmth of blend with the singers also contributed to it. Luckily I went back the next night to see some Donizetti...

Friday 1 July 2011

Two Boys


It's bland

No just kidding, I'm way too addicted the clack of the keyboard to warrant not doing a proper review. In short: I didn't hate it, I didn't love it. Let me just say this first:

Nico Muhly. Just reading his blog we already get a clear picture of the man: charming, erudite, urbane, passionate and witty. The zest for life, quirky misspellings, extremely wide ranging musical tastes, camped up street language are all totally endearing. He is the current young composer du jour - there's always one - the darling of all modern music ensembles, posters, interviews and articles about him everywhere, and I don't envy him that role at all. Ten years ago it was Adés and one clearly felt that the guy didn't like the pressure: he's gone quiet in the past few years.

Nico Muhly is similar in some regards to Adés - the early developed technical facility and extraordinary ear for texture and colour is there (though Adés is quirkier, and more wideranging), each piece coming out sounding completely polished and very mature in its self assured character and personality. Muhly is the softer of the two, texturally, harmonically, gesturally - the idiom a sort of neo impressionistic post minimalism (it all sounds very "post", with huge pop influences), most similar to Adams, but without the pounding manfulness and brashness that that composer sometimes visits. Somewhere between Adams, orchestral Debussy and Ligeti then I would say. Choral music shows older influences - most obviously the renaissance masters lend a hand.

It's hard to say that the music isn't in some way very derivative, but the result is always immaculately finished and polished and unmistakably his. I'm reminded in technique, if not in sound, of Poulenc (sans the vulgarity), the wholesale borrowing from treasured musical influences (here more bashful), all thrown together (here blended) to make something with its own distinctive bouquet and aroma. Muhly's music often feels french, or at least conforms to the clichées that hang to french music - it's obsession with surface, colouring the note, a sussurus of textures, it's slightly sentimental beauty.

This is all true of Two Boys, Muhly's first opera, but where it fails is in the actual musical substance of the score - all the coruscating harmonics, string glissandos, piano ripples, simultaneous with muted sul pont viola pizzes, celestes and flutes in their lowest register can't save you over a two hour span of music if the basic musical ideas can't carry them, if the harmonic momentum of the piece evaporates every few bars, and the large scale structure of the score isn't palpable. The music, though usually lovely moment to moment, becomes wallpapery and aimless, and a pall of pastel shades, sepia, grey and beige begins to descend on the ear. Again one is reminded of Poulenc, who can sustain interest in the miniature, but fails to convince in the longer span. Is this partly the fault of Craig Lucas' libretto, which is very slow, predictable, and irritatingly shallow? I felt disappointed that a potentially interesting subject matter like this was hardly tackled with any depth at all - did any of the characters other than the perennially harassed detective Strawson have more than 1.5 dimensions? This is not at all a psychological opera, despite the psychologically driven plot, with characters barely able to express themselves or explore their inner feelings. In it's eschewal of normal opera tropes like the aria monologue, we're reduced to watching a musical episode of The Bill where we have to guess what the characters are thinking and feeling from their acting. But is this why we go to the opera? Is this really opera's realm of expertise, the place it can excel? The music doesn't give us enough of a clue with regards to emotion, with solo vocal lines rather unmemorable and characterless neither overtly dramatic, lyrical or even clearly in some sort of parlando convention, each line slipping past in it's decorous, inoffensive way.

Was the end of the opera meant to be a twist? I wonder if anyone other than the detective didn't see it coming. And what message is the piece trying to give us about the internet? Who is it for? What more general truths about our humanity and how we interact with each other are we meant to glean from it, now that chatrooms are hopelessly passé and we're all so self aware about the effect that the internet has on us? Or is it just blandly recounting the facts of the matter? Again these are problems with the libretto, not with the music. On the other hand, there are many, many operas with sub-par librettos that survive because of the beauty and impact of the music.

What does work well (rather predictably) is the music for the chorus, a genre which Muhly is well practised in - the flitting, buzzing chatter of the internet is evoked rather wonderfully by relentlessly overlapping vocal lines, though I think he's done the same thing better before in his Mothertongue. The production too is effective with it's shifting projections, the whole thing feeling low key and tasteful.

Basically then, I just felt bored and underwhelmed most of the time.

There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding with so many contemporary composers of what opera is about. I'll let you into a secret: it's about voices. Fundamentally people go to hear voices. For me the first duty of the operatic composer is to provide voices with a vehicle to move, exalt, thrill. This can be done more effectively with excellent dramaturgy, superb acting and beautiful design, but the human voice is the foundation. Why do so many contemporary composers miss this? My guess is that they do not themselves adore the genre, though this is pure conjecture. I would make this criticism of this opera, and even more so of Turnage's Anna Nicole. Adés is also guilty in his two efforts though less so. (I could go on to others but wont). I love so much of these three's music, but all of them have produced operatic duds in the last few years, and all are guilty of this.

The cast was largely excellent, lots of young characters requiring young singers to do the roles and they mostly acquitted themselves very well. Susan Bickley as detective Anne Strawson is in some ways the central character who links to the audience, much like her role as the mother in Anna Nicole earlier this year. She's not enormously likable in her frumpy dourness, and I wish she had been pushed more into the hard drinking, fast talking, darkly humorous detective cliché that she was hovering on the edge of. Vocally it's not a pretty sound, though it's easy to understand, and the acting's certainly there. Nicky Spence plays Brian, the main dramatic protagonist and he sings well, though hardly suggesting youthfulness in the voice at all. The character is rather one dimensional (as I say, maybe one point five dimensions is fairer), a typical surly, sulky, wanky 16 year old, possibly depressingly true to the actual person, but maybe not the most interesting operatic character. Most remarkable perhaps is Joseph Beesley as Jake, the other of the Two Boys, his beautiful treble clear and well supported by Muhly's always sensitive orchestration. Mary Bevan's well sung Rebecca revealed a lovely soubrette voice.

I can imagine how painful and galling it must be for Muhly to read all these negative or indifferent reviews that the show has been getting, as I'm sure he's laboured over this for countless hours and poured his heart into it. (I know not all the reviews are negative). I blame the ENO and Met for jumping on these band wagon waves of hype that surround composers - which other modern composer would get their first opera as a commission from the Met? Which young composer could possibly deliver the goods? There is possibly nothing so challenging as writing an opera and yet it's requested before the composer has properly found his feet. The talent and energy are undoubtedly there with Muhly, but why put this pressure on so early? Large arts organisations have no consideration for letting young artists develop in their own time - you see it in every discipline.

A final bone of contention: the ENO's marketing. They're boasting about having got a million views on their (criminally irritating) Youtube video. First, it's just not at all funny, but second, it doesn't refer to opera in general even, let alone mention Two Boys even once. Will Self's rambling and largely irrelevant monologues, again make no reference to the opera. Did Muhly approve either of these? - both are so clumsy and so lacking in wit that it's impossible to discern his stamp. In contrast, at time of writing, the ENO's interview with the composer, has 740 views. What is the point of having highly visible marketing, if it makes no connection with the product you're trying to sell? The night I went there were well over a thousand empty seats. Two nights previously there had been 1350+ empty seats - less than half full. Both the ROH and the ENO put far too much money into digital media without having any clue how to actually make it pay for itself (witness the only marginally more relevant Anna Nicole Trailer, again with no reference to Turnage's music or opera in general at all). Anna Nicole though sold out at least (definitely not due to the trailer), one of the only shows to do that this year at the ROH. There's a sort of desperation to all this marketing though, and it reeks of organisations, venerable and serious, hopelessly lost, trying desperately to understand the changing world, hoping somehow to solve the issues of aging audiences by being as blandly similar to everything else on youtube, and throwing money that way until the problem is solved. And then it's smugly called innovative marketing. The solution is to get people to engage with the art form, let them experience the soul enriching, life affirming, soaring beauty of operatic art, not throw gimmicks at them in some desperate attempt to trick them into coming.

(P.S. I toyed with calling this post "two boys (no cups)", but thought it too irrelevant in the end, with no obvious referent in the opera... dying to make the joke work though somewhere)

Saturday 25 June 2011

Chamber delights at the Wigmore hall

Stephen Kovacevich 70th birthday concert
Wigmore Hall

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Grimes

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Madama Butterfly at the Royal Opera House

Madama Butterfly General

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 20 June 2011

Simon Boccanegra at the ENO

Simon Boccanegra

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

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

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

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

Cocteau Voices

La Voix Humaine
Linbury theatre

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

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

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

Sunday 19 June 2011

Rusalka at Grange Park Opera

Grange Park Opera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 13 June 2011

Verdi's Macbeth

Royal Opera House
Covent Garden

A short one.

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

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

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

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

Saturday 11 June 2011

Glyndebourne II: Don Giovanni

Glyndebourne Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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