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Saturday 4 June 2011

Two brides at the Royal Opera House

Fidelio and Tsar's Bride

I've been so busy the last few weeks that I didn't manage to comment on these two productions when they happened. Full reviews seem beside the point now that they're both over, but I did want to post a few thoughts on them.

Rimsky Korsakov's 15 operas are largely an unknown quantity for me, so it was good to finally see one - one wonders when the next one will be performed in London. I thought this production was one of the best things that the ROH had done this year - cleverly and stylishly updated, visually stunning and with direction and musical values particularly notable for their quality. Maybe I was just relieved after the relative mediocrity of Fidelio, Aida and Anna Nicole that had preceded it.

This is an example of an intelligent piece of Regie (the action took place in approximately present day, and centred around Russian mob activities) - never does the libretto fight what's on stage, and the brutality of the characters actions is both more explicable and more sinister. The acting and direction were particularly notable for their naturalism and subtlety, both A Good Thing in my book. Kevin Knight's sets were some of the best that the ROH has had this year - capturing that curiously Russian mix of periods and lack of taste, they had a very strong sense of atmosphere and place, and in every scene, the set really added to the drama and visual spectacle in a grimy, low key way.

Marina Poplavskaya as Marfa, the Tzar's bride, was completely uninvolving, and rumours from rehearsals suggest that she was impossible to work with, badly behaved and completely narcissistic. But we could have told this from the performance, which even in the climactic mad scene (which seems an anachronism this late in the 19th century) left the audience unmoved - some nights there wasn't even any applause afterwards, and this from her "home crowds" - she is one of the ROH's most famous Young Artists Programme graduates. The voice is quite large and quite beautiful in places but her technique is lacking and as a result the voice feels squeezed and not quite fully in control. Her stage presence isn't exactly commanding either and her strange looks don't really register at a distance (now that Joan Sutherland has died is she the biggest jaw in opera?). Blandness is the issue, which perhaps explains the diva-ish antics. Her glacially ungracious manner with the audience afterwards rendered her even less endearing.

The rest of the cast were generally very good, particularly Ekaterina Gubanova's captivating performance as Lyubasha, the furiously obsessed love rival, whose refulgently warm mezzo, stage presence and superior acting made her the centre of the action. She's also an ex-ROH Young Artist and seems to me to be a far better ambassador for the House. Mark Elder in the pit gave the strongest possible advocacy for what is an exciting and passionate score, even if one knows and feels throughout that it is not a first rate opera.

A couple of days before, I saw the ROH's Fidelio, and it was not a pleasurable evening. This Met production is drab and dull and is thankfully being retired now - why did the opera house ever take it in the first place? I literally can't be bothered to comment on it any further, so I'll move onto the singing which was mostly fine, but never spectacular. Steven Ebel is a tenor currently in the ROH's Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, and took on the relatively large role of Jaquino. His bleating, mosquito like buzz of a vibrato is just not at all pleasant, and his cumbersomely gangly lope means he only moves badly on stage. This might seem unfair, as he's theoretically still developing as a singer and artist, but the ROHJPYA scheme is meant to be a finishing school, a last port of call before the terrifying ocean of professional operatic life. I just cannot see that he will ever be successful.

The only other singer I feel moved to talk about is Nina Stemme as Leonore/Fidelio. I have never seen a bad word written about Stemme, especially from London audiences, and this was the first time I'd seen her live, so I was quite excited. And then very disappointed. I was near the front of the stalls and found it hard to hear her much of the time. I don't know if the direness of the production meant that she wasn't trying, as it's clearly a voice of some power and resource but the voice just seemed rather dry and didn't carry at all. Maybe she was having an off day. But like my recent Glyndebourne experience with Anna Gabler as Eva there was just no sense of line whatsoever. It's not that she's sacrificing line for textual clarity either, it just wasn't pleasurable to hear. I have heard her Strauss disc which is fine for the Salome excerpt and the Four Last Songs (though vocally doesn't compete with the leading rivals. The orchestra is amazing), but related problems arise in the last scene of Capriccio - the voice just powers through the thing without any regard for musical detail or the text, and the huge dramatic vibrato and tone just seems completely inappropriate for the role. In an interview she classifies herself as a lyric-dramatic soprano and there are indeed a lot of lyric roles in her repertoire but I would not want to hear her in a single one.

I really wanted to like her too! I'll endeavour to see her in one of her Wagner roles...


  1. I definitely think you must have caught her on a bad night. I haven't heard her too often but "dry" and "not able to carry" are the last things I would have said about those experiences. Since one of the places I heard her was the Met (also in the "stalls" as you guys call them) and since the ROH has one of the best acoustics of any major opera house, it must really have been a very bad day for her vocally.

    That said, her suitability for Leonore is rather dubious (though the role is problem for almost anyone) and for the lighter Strauss even more so and especially at this stage of her career. She can be a very compelling actress but in the VLL CD seemes rather uninvolved.

    The production, which I believe is from the Met is rather excruciating I think and when combined with what I think must have been some measure of vocal indisposition I can easily imagine that the performance was way boring. Much as I love Fidelio though, I've yet to see satisfying production and the opera's famous dramatic infelicities no doubt are partly responsible for that. That said, Fidelio CAN be very exciting such one desperately needs an exciting Leonore and good conducting (quality throughout the cast is desirable, of course, but not indispensable). Indeed Mattila and Meier were very effective Leonores in this same staging at the Met.

  2. I guess by didn't carry, I meant she didn't seem to be riding the orchestra, not cutting through it like the best Hoch Dramatische sopranos manage. But I'm perfectly willing to concede I caught her on an off night.

    Yes I think Fidelio is extremely hard to stage effectively - and it seems to be an opera that everyone loves more in theory than actually when they go to see it. Perhaps its qualities lie mainly in the music, rather than as drama, but one feels that there is definitely an astonishing piece of drama that could be made of it, if only someone found some magic key to presenting it! Who's your favourite Leonore?

  3. I suppose "didn't carry" can be ambiguous but I took it to mean exactly what you describe and its precisely this "riding of the orchestra" with tremendous musical sensitivity that I think Stemme at her best does so well and the fact that she failed to do that in this Fidelio does seem to indicate a relatively bad day. There is reason to think Leonore might not be one of her best roles even on a good day but in this case she must have been in very poor vocal form.

    Favorite Leonore: Uff. I wrote a very long comment, realized I was barely halfway through and decided to cancel most of and cut to the chase (yes, this is the SHORT version): Meier by lot. I saw her in Munich and the Met within the space of several weeks and er singing was never effortless or immaculate or even particularly attractive but it was extremely skilled and sensitive. More importantly her acting made the Opera exciting in the way that Mattila a very good actress, in her vocal prime, singing in a new production did not (though in isolation her performance was very satisfying). Its difficult to describe but her Leonore combined determination, firmness, insecurity and femininity and created and maintained a tension and suspense that is almost impossible to do in this opera. Mattila was almost too confident, her singing (though the voice was by no means large for this role in this venue) almost too secure.

    As you say, Fidelio is great in theory, there is some magnificent music but its difficult to make great or even exciting and Meier did precisely that. (Matti Salminen's Rocco and especially Johan Botha's credibly starving Florestan also helped).

    I just checked and it appears she's singing it in, of all the odd places, Vienna, in a couple of months. One cannot, however, go to everything and while her voice was never beautiful and such beauty was not necessary for a great portrayal, there is a certainly minimal standard that I fear Meier can no longer attain in this role. In 2002, however, she was amazing. I wish I could recommend the recording with Barenboim but I'm afraid she was less than electrifying and I'm not familiar with the DVD form Valencia but it might be worth a look.

  4. I will definitely search her out! Thanks very much for this. How do you get to hop over the pond with such ease? - I would love to be able to do the reverse!

  5. A couple of weeks after I started work someone who had to go to Munich got sick so they shipped me over (just it time for the start of the opera season, fortuitously enough) and I just kinda fell in to this. (I could have fallen into something much worse, like banking law, heaven forfend. Cringe.) Since then I've going over half a dozen times or so over a year, give or take a couple. Mostly Munich and other Germanic places, some Paris, early on a couple of nice stays in London, not so much recently.

    This tends to afford all kinds of operatic opportunities, including for some interesting comparisons. About a month before I saw Meier as Leonore in New York I saw her in Munich. Interesting to observe how people sound differently and even approach singing in different venues. In 2001 I saw Renee in Arabella in Munich the next fall in New York. And so forth.

    Next year I'm actually going to be in Munich full time so I'll try to take as much advantage as I can of Renee's Straussian adventures, inter alia.