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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.