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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.