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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)