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Tuesday 17 May 2011

New ENO season announced

And what a fantastic season it is. For obscurists like myself it's an absolute dream, and provides a brilliant contrast to the Royal Opera House's ultra traditional season (which I've come round to and am also greatly looking forward to). There's almost nothing I don't want to see.

Outrageous claims are made for Weinberg's music (for instance that he should be considered as the third of the "great three" Soviet composers), but though he's very inconsistent (something he does share with Shostakovich and Prokofiev), at his best he writes music of genuine pathos and beauty. I don't know The Passenger, but I certainly am looking forward to it... maybe one to look out before seeing it live - the story sounds extremely interesting, though I'm wary of another concentration camp setting. We'll see!

Figaro is possibly my favourite Mozart opera overall and I never mind seeing what a new director has to say in this piece. Kate Valentine has recieved what might be described as rave reviews for her Countess at Scottish Opera, so it'll be great to see her in London.

Rameau is always a favourite with me, probably my favourite Baroque opera composer. Amazing that the ENO have never staged a Rameau before, and Castor and Pollux is a great one. Looking forward to seeing Roderick Williams on stage - have only heard him in lieder recordings thus far.

Eugene Onegin is another one of my all time favourites, it's just a magnificent score, a brilliant piece of dramaturgy and is probably my favourite piece by Tchaikovsky. Don't recognise any of the cast, but it's hard for this score not to be enjoyable. (Apparently the Royal Opera House have it slated for January 2013)

I like the way the ENO calls their revival of Tosca a "classic revival"! Not sure I'll be attending either this or Butterfly later in the season - the only things that don't really appeal.

Naturally I cannot wait for the Rosenkavalier with Sarah Connolly as Octavian, Sophie Bevan as Sophie, Amanda Roocroft as the Marchallin and God as Ochs. I always sort of dread looking down the cast list for who the Marschallin will be in Rosenkavalier productions - if that piece of casting isn't just right, the whole thing will fall flat. No need to worry though - Amanda Roocroft is both a magnificent singer (this is her role debut) and a fantastic actress, so I'm very happy. Amongst singers that the ENO can afford, especially English ones, they couldn't have chosen better. One thing though. Why on earth did they use such a hideous picture of Connolly as the image for the production?! (UPDATE 26/06: after hearing Roocroft in the ROH's Peter Grimes, I'm now not so ecstatic at the prospect of her assumption of the role. Ho-hum)

Never seen an Offenbach opera, so will be good to see Tales of Hoffmann which strikes me as potentially being one of his most interesting.

Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer is a great score in my opinion, definitely one of Adams' better operas. Only know it from the recording so looking forward to seeing it realised on the stage.

Jacob Lenz, Caligula and Doctor Dee again completely unknown by me - did I mention I was excited by the obscurity of this season! - not many details on any yes, but looking forward to all.

And finally Billy Budd and Dutchman - the former yet another favourite, the latter again new to me on the stage.

The only thing wrong with this season is no Janacek (there's none at the ROH either), but with so much that's exciting, I'm just cavilling.

ENO 2011/12 season

The Elixir of Love, Donizetti , opens 15 September 2011

The Passenger, Weinberg, opens 19 September 2011

The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart, opens 5 October 2011

Castor and Pollux, Rameau, opens 24 October 2011

Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky, opens 12 November 2011

Tosca, Puccini, opens 26 November 2011

Der Rosenkavalier, Strauss, opens 28 January 2012

The Tales of Hoffmann, Offenbach, opens 10 February 2012

The Death of Klinghoffer, John Adams, opens 25 February 2012

Jakob Lenz, Wolfgang Rihm, opens 17 April 2012, Hampstead Theatre

The Flying Dutchman, Wagner, opens 28 April 2012

Madam Butterfly, Puccini, opens 8 May 2012

Caligula, Detlev Glanert, opens 25 May 2012

Billy Budd, Britten, opens 18 June 2012

Doctor Dee, Damon Albarn, opens 25 June 2012

Click here to check it out for yourself.

Thoughts on the Met Broadcast Walkure

Die Walkure
Metropolitan Opera Broadcast

Not a proper review and nothing profound to note; these are just some general thoughts and views on this broadcast more for my future reference than anything.

Really enjoyed this evening! First things first, the new Met production of the Ring is totally pointless, utterly inoffensive, completely literal, poorly staged, unthoughtprovoking and rather soulless. It's almost not worth discussing. Despite all the technological flummery, it's deeply traditional, not that this is bad in itself, but there's not much beauty and quite alot that is actively horrible to watch, at least at close range. The direction of this broadcast was consistently ill executed with irritating camera angles, constantly panning or tracking shots and loads of extreme close ups (when will opera film/DVD director learn that we almost never want these?).

So this evening was mostly enjoyable for the acting and its musical quality. The extremely starry cast promised big, and basically delivered too. The big question mark was whether Voigt would be able to manage the role, after some reports and rumours that her career was over due to some dubious Minnies she sang around Christmas time. She acquitted herself rather well I thought, and certainly warmed up vocally through the night, though to me it's not really a beautiful sound anymore. The German was pretty questionable too, which surprised me as I'd never noticed before. Maybe her Brunhilde was a bit cute, but she is meant to be childlike in the Walkure, and her joyous playing around with Bryn Terfel's Wotan in the opening scene was great I thought. Eva-Maria Westbrook is another soprano whose voice I don't find beautiful anymore, the vibrato being rather unattractive and there's a basic lack of colour and variation in the sound - the sound itself begins to bore. Additionally I didn't think her acting was great here. Thing is, she's better in the theatre than up close (either on video or on CD) which is probably why she's been recorded so little in the past, so it doesn't seem fair to judge her too harshly. She does a weird thing when she sings loadly too - the mouth always veers to the right, which is distracting and I'm assured is not good technique.

But lets get onto the good bits! Jonas Kaufmann is a frigging god. It's just a gorgeous voice, gorgeously used, simple as that. His Todesverkündigung was magical. I don't like the staring into space thing he does sometimes when he's meant to be addressing characters, but really, he's the greatest tenor in the world at the moment. There really is no question about this. I just want to see everything he does now. (The voice sounds bigger on record than it is in reality though. He's certainly not a heldentenor, and I would question whether he's really a true dramatic tenor either. He seems to be growing into this repertoire however, so we'll see how it develops). Stephanie Blythe played Fricka. The voice is absolutely magnificent, radiantly beautiful, hugely powerful, effortlessly in tune, satisfyingly dark at the bottom and with a glitteringly intense top. And she sings so intelligently too - so many colours, so much interest, such great shaping of the text. I love it.

Bryn Terfel is a very good Wotan, but the voice is definitely sounding damaged these days. He's clearly thought about the role a lot and nothing seems by wrote, again great sensitivity to the text, and well acted, though at the same time I'm not sure he conveys the majesterial grandeur that the king of the gods surely requires, and as a result the torment of his downfall does not quite strike with full force that it should. However, this more human approach means the climactic scenes with his children - Seigmund's death and the farewell with Brunhilde - are extremely moving, the acting and music making of the last half hour of the opera unusually poignant and human (Deborah Voigt equally excellent here).

The orchestral support from the Met band with Levine was just magnificent.

Let's just get something straight here: it's completely moronic to clap during these broadcasts. Right? I'm right aren't I. Yet so many people do it. It actually pains me. Also moronic are the interviews - Joyce Didonato a comically inept and completely charmless host - such shallow questions, and irritatingly screeching faux star struckness (the hilarious Stephanie Blythe taking the thing in great humour and clearly taking the piss). She interviewed the guy in charge of the stage technology ("the machine" had failed causing the show to start 40 minutes late), and finished by saying "thanks for getting it up tonight". And not that these things usually bother me overly, but her hair, makeup and above all her dress were just horrendous - truly mystefying - who made those decisions? And then the equally embarrassing, but more forgivable Placido Domingo as cohost who bumped into Voigt and "lost his glasses in her". And then the behind the scenes crew clearly seen frantically directing the gormless singers. It's all so unslick, but worse it just destroys any suspension of disbelief and any sense of the mysery of the stage. They really need to stop this crap. Why not have prerecorded clips? And why not talk to directors/designers/Wagner experts? Or just have the pre recorded documentary features?

Saturday 7 May 2011


Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House

Hmm, not great. Not bad though either.

The best bit about this show is the set which is quite beautiful in an understated, dingy sort of way - all delapidation, plain living and clear natural light. The set looks like it's three hinged cuboids, folded out so that you can see the interior of each, but if they were folded back together, they'd make a box. So singers in one section sing into the audience as if looking forward into the other box segment. Quite an interesting idea and it means that all the singers are facing the audience most of the time, so we see from both parties' point of view.

The story is one of the strangest in the bible, that of the ancient Abraham and Sarah (both looking quite sprightly in this production) being told they are going to have child, and then realising that the people they've been told this by are actually angels about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham pleads with them to be lenient (Ah I see! Clemency!) and they agree, and then storm off. It's updated to approximately present day though as far as I could make out, the angels are still angels. Unfortunately only about a third of the text is intelligable, and there are no surtitles. I understand the conflict that surtitles produce in opera - that when they're there one isn't directly involved in the drama because the eye keeps flicking upwards, and reading is done in the opposite hemisphere of the brain to watching and listening, which is not good for true concentration and "losing yourself" in the drama. But without them, the drama is also vitiated, especially in a new work like this because singers so often have poor diction, and you have no idea what's going on most of the time, beyond the patently obvious.

The singing, as ever with ROH2, is fine from all involved, often very good, but rarely moving. Singing rarely seems to be the point of ROH2 productions (or contemporary opera in general for that matter, with a few happy exceptions). The score is very nice in places, occasionally exquisite, but overall fails to make much impact - James Macmillan's eclectic oeuvre relies on its immediacy, beauty and occasional strangeness for effect, but when he's not inspired, the result is often rather bland and generic, beautifully crafted though it almost always is. As an aside, there was something oddly beautiful about the look of just the strings of the Britten Sinfonia sitting in the pit too - seemed totally fitting for the lovelyness of the stage.

Berlioz's Faust

La Damnation de Faust

This show was rapturously received by the audience, but I left the theatre partially dazzled and partially confused. The whole thing is all about Terry Gilliam really - everyone wants to see what the ex-Python has done with this notoriously difficult to stage opera/oratorio/thing (Berlioz calls it a légende dramatique).

For me La Damnation de Faust is Berlioz's finest work, every section quirkily masterful, powerful and brilliant, and it contains almost no dross whatsoever. I am a big Berlioz fan but even I admit that he's rarely so consistently inspired as here. So what if it's not the most compelling retelling of the Faust legend dramatically? It's an epic, sprawling masterpiece, completely strange and completely wonderful. A piquant contrast to Thursday's Massenet (also that composers finest work) - suave sentiment versus gawky beauty!

The cast is mostly excellent, Peter Hoare in the horrendously taxing role of Faust sounding beautiful most of the time, Christine Rice's Marguerite very well sung too, if a tad bland, and Christopher Purves, a little rough around the edges these days, but with great presence and playing the part to perfection. The choir also sings their glorious music wonderfully (though outrageously someone started clapping before the end of their final quiet number - why do people do this?). Edward Gardner lead the hugely bolstered ENO orchestra brilliantly, and they responded in kind with some very fine playing indeed.

This production updates the action to 20th century Germany, covering the first and second world wars, with Faust caught up in the middle of it all. The number cultural references are bewildering, and I'm sure I missed loads. The opening has a landscape redolent of Caspar David Friedrich, the ne plus ultra of romantic nature worshipping teutonic heroism as a backdrop for Faust's evocation to nature. Leni Reifenstahl's film Olympia crops up too, as well as the outbreak of the first world war (in a daringly comedic pantomime), Brownshirts, communists and the rise of the Nazis, Kristallnacht, and it all ends in Auschwitz. When Faust dreams of Marguerite she appears as a sleeping Brunhilde replete with ring of fire, as the German public and Nazi officials look on (am I the only one who got this? No one else has mentioned it yet!). It's an extended commentary/critique/sending up of German culture and history, but how relevant is it really to the Faust story? What about this "konzept" really illuminates the characters or drama? I'm all for intelligent Regie theatre, but there needs to be some sort of essential and meaningful correspondance between the new situation and the original intention of the composer for it to yield any insights, or show the familiar piece in a new light. It just seemed that these two strands, Faust on the one side and German history on the other, were running along side each other with little interrelation; Mephistopheloes was the most common point of contact as far as it went, though again, it just seemed to be that he had two largely unrelated roles, with his manipulation of Faust on the one hand, and his orchestrating of Nazi activities on the other. This was an uncomfortable piece of staging partly because it didn't seem necessary - surely his dramatic role is almost exclusively to tempt Faust - and partly because Nazi Germany's crimes being the work of the devil seems a terrible abdication of blame to me. And actually the setting often detracted from the telling of the story - both because the staging was so visually confusing, with its consistently poor lighting (which didn't lead the eye at all, and unfairly left the sets looking rather ramshackle and poorly conceived) and over stuffing with ideas (no doubt paranoia that the piece is too slow dramatically on its own), and often because of the inexplicable relationship between what was going on stage to the actual action in the score. That is not to say that there weren't a lot of extremely visually arresting portions, especially those including video sequences, but it didn't quite live up to the promise of its designer/director's (over)fertile mind - it seemed to me that there was not enough editing of ideas, or thought about how it would actually look on stage. Not only did the drama suffer, but often the wonderful music was lost in the fray as well.

A case in point: Faust's love scene with Marguerite happens on Kristallnacht, and soon after, instead of going to prison, Marguerite, being a Jew, gets carted off to a concentration camp (no mention of her poisoning her mother!). Then in the finale scene, she is seen on a pile of dead bodies while the choir sings it's beautiful refrain about her return to purity, salvation and ascension to heaven. Apart from this being an inappropriately Christian sentiment for a Jewish woman, when the crowd sings that she died because love led her astray, in the current staging it isn't true - she died because of her race, and the unthinkable evil of the Nazis. It could have made sense if her liaison with Faust had caused her to be found by the Nazis, but again the staging was so unclear at that point, that if this was the intention, it was lost. And lets get back to that scene - she's lying on a pile of bodies in Auschwitz, accompanied by music of unearthly beauty, bordering on religious kitsch because of the embarrassing piety of the sentiment and situation as presented by Berlioz. Yes it's a powerful image and deeply shocking, but is it meaningful or telling in any way? Again I have to demur.

Despite all this it was a decent evening's entertainment I have to say, and it was well recieved - at least the ENO are taking risks! I think a lot of people will get swept away with it all and love it without thinking about it too much. And Berlioz's music is very well served by the conductor, orchestra, soloists and choir, even if it is often battling with the furor of the stage.

Thursday 5 May 2011


Covent Garden
Royal Opera House

Werther is often cited as being Massenet's greatest work and you can see why - it's a magnificent score, opulently fragrant late romantic music, and just so wonderfully French. Colours and smells, enchantment, sentimentality, lightness, passion, indulgence. But there's a an air of seriousness and High Art to this score too, something absent in the rest of his operas, its presence probably explicable because its libretto is drawn from Goethe. Really though this is all pretence and wishful thinking - nothing could be further from Massenet's talents than Teutonic profundity - he is a genius of orchestral shadings, delicious suavity, finely delineated emotional states, ravishment of the senses. Behind the refinement and surface shimmer though there are always burgeoning erotic undertones, and like Strauss at heart he's all sensuality and sleaze.

Naturally I'm a big fan.

Sophie Koch is perfect as Charlotte - evincing both youthful beauty and a sentimental picture of maternal warmth. She is not a glamorous singer, but the sound is pure, very big and well controlled with excellent intonation and diction. Up close she can be horribly distracting with her strangely mobile rubber lips, (completely inappropriate for German singing) but I really liked her this evening.

Rolando Villazon is definitely back on form (but not quite as good as he used to be), and warmed up throughout the evening, though seems underpowered now for the vocal climaxes of this work. In this reworking of Goethe's novel, Werther is less an idealistic poet than a moody love-sick narcissist. Villazon's acting is not exactly stellar, and the way he plays it, it's almost funny how little his character seems to actually care about Charlotte - he constantly sings about himself and his unbearable woe, barely listens to what she says in reply, and then sulks around brooding when she rejects him. When I commented on this to my opera going companion, she assured me that in her experience most people who fall in love after meeting someone once are actually as self absorbed as this - so its sort of realistic, because life can be this ridiculous!

Of the rest of the cast, Alain Vernhes as Charlotte's father had incredible vocal presence and is just the sort of effortlessly loud and clear bass-baritone that is a complete joy to hear in bit parts like this. I always appreciate the peculiarly French sentimentality of the children in this opera, particularly their Christmas song - Massenet really is the highest quality kitsch money can buy. Most of the rest of the cast was fairly unremarkable, though the diminutive Schmidt (Stuart Patterson) and the enormous Johann (Darren Jeffery) were quite an amusing pair of drunks, mostly because they carried on like an old gay couple.

The sets (by Charles Edwards) are gorgeous, as is the lighting (also by Edwards). The luminous grey-blue sky of the second act against the golden autumnal esplanade is very beautiful, and then the extraordinary start of Act 3, scene 2, white snow falling against a black background, with the room slowly moving forward from the deepest recesses of the stage - so completely perfect for the delicate susurrus emerging from the orchestra at this point in the score (harp and strings producing truly Schrecker-ian veils of sound in pastel shades and velvet hues.)

I'm actually not as much a fan of Werther as I am of Manon, Thais or even Don Quixote, basically because it's less rapturously erotic than the former two, and not as pathos ridden as the latter, but it still hits the spot often and with force! Dramatically, this production didn't convince, but I think the opera could work if it were more imaginatively directed, and had a far better actor as the lead. As it stood, it was an enjoyable evening, mainly for the music and visuals.

(Update: looking at youtube videos with Koch and Kaufmann - it looks like I was right - Benoit Jacquot a much better director than the ROH revival director Andrew Sinclair, and naturally Kaufmann gives the character depth and a vocal presence that Villazon can't quite muster).