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Tuesday 28 February 2012

Rusalka at ROH


I have a particular love for Czech repertoire, and Dvorak's Rusalka is one of its most precious jewels. Like Eugene Onegin, Pelléas et Mélisande and Bluebeard's castle, it's a sort of one off, never to be repeated perfectly itself opera, a serendipitous meeting of composer with subject matter, libretto and sound world that just works beautifully well to create something truly unique. The luminosity of the orchestration, superb musical characterisation and differentiation of the different roles, ravishing beauty of the harmony and melodic fecundity make this a very special work (like so much other late Dvorak - so many pieces seem uniquely special!)

Astonishingly this is the first time it's been staged at the Royal Opera House (two concert performances were given with Fleming and Mackerras in 2003), and for the occasion they have imported a 2008 production from Salzburg originally directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Seymour, with revival direction by Samantha Seymour. Whilst this is an "updating" to modern dress (not that the original has a date), elements of the mystical remain - Rusalka really is a water nymph initially, her sisters feral wood spirits scuttling around in their opening scene with alarming velocity and singing almost flawlessly. Along with these characters, Rusalka's father Vodnik and the witch Jezibabu, ironically herself crippled, all live in some sort of half ethereal realm (denoted by a subtly shifting, ever drifting stage and projections on the set) in a state of decay, moral and physical (both the surrounds and themselves). That Rusalka's father is sexually aroused by his daughter's sisters introduces the dark undercurrents of deviant sexuality and abuse that permeate this work - though initially at least the girls are free and wild. (Presumably they have a different father - we never meet Rusalka's mother, but a potentially polygamous woman in the background already provides a subversive and very non Christian family picture). His neglect is obvious too - whilst Rusalka sings idealistically of her longing for love (she seems very young with her cuddly toy - her craving for love at this age further suggests his neglect), he barely listens, waving to and flirting with the nymphs.

Later, in the third act, he and Jezibaba have captured and imprisoned the nymphs as sex workers in a seedy lounge brothel - they are forced to lavish their false affections on the Gamekeeper while Jezibaba hungrily undresses the Kitchen Boy. Their nervous twitching and animalistic behaviour cement this picture of desocialisation and ritual abuse, and they soon grab their chance to escape. Vodnik's sententious moralising here and at the beginning sickens though also moves: we cannot but give into this ambiguity - he seems to love his daughter whilst also hatefully controlling and destroying young women who seem so similar to her.

Meanwhile the love of a man is destroying his daughter - in this production the prince seems more torn than he is often shown to be, and comes to her rescue when she is mocked by the towns people, but mostly he is a narcisist and is mainly concerned with his own rapturous feelings. When Rusalka proudly totters out to meet him with her new legs looking like some incongruous stepford wife he serenades her endlessly (and it has to be said gloriously!), obsessed with her beauty, but seems uninterested in her true identity.

In the end Rusalka, unable to capture his attentions and possessed by grief, commits suicide, her disturbed sisters barely seeming to notice, though Vodnik weeps over her corpse. The final scene seems to be largely internal/psychological for the prince - Rusalka haunting his conscience when he realises what he's done to her. In the end she is left in a sort of terrifying limbo, static, unfeeling, destroyed.

I could go on with this sort of analysis, but ultimately of course everyone will take their own meaning from it. This is an interesting production, not always perfectly executed, but quite well thought out, visually strong, if not beautiful, and powerful in its impact. It is not, as Rupert Christiansen seems to suggest, intellectually abstruse (seriously have to wonder sometimes with this man). The constant questioning of what is real and what is imagined, what is psychological and what is magical is not a weakness and perfectly in keeping with the ambiguity of the libretto. The three views of the cat we get - as a stuffed toy, in a comic pantomime with a person in a cat costume, and then with a real cat suggests this as strongly as anything does. Sometimes the acting is not quite up to the ideas especially from the two leads, but in general the ideas came across well enough, and I was rather moved by the end.

There was a general air of incomprehension from the audience which I found perplexing - this was pretty simple person-regie and none of it seemed that difficult to interpret to me. Lots of people were grumbling about relevance (especially the young people) but all of it seemed exactly in line with the themes of the opera to me, even if not presented in a traditional fairy tale setting. The production team was met with heavy boos. Depressing that audiences are so reactionary, especially when there were were so many young people here. My guess is that people wanted romantic tragedy, not sexual immorality and grime, but in this story the two are really so far apart: it's just a matter of perspective.

Musically this was a very strong evening. Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin has the measure of this score and coaxed some gorgeous playing out of the ROH orchestra particularly the winds and strings. There was always a feeling of symphonic weight and purpose, whilst simultaneously being flexible and sensitive to the singer's requirements. Pretty ideal then. One thing grated: intonation from the brass was often slightly questionable, particularly the principal trumpet which has several rather exposed solos. But overall a very strong show from both conductor and orchestra.

I didn't like Camilla Nylund's Rusalka very much I have to say. The voice is quite light, silvery when quiet which seems ideal, but there's no weight in the lower register, and the higher she sings and the louder she sings, the less focussed the sound and the wider the vibrato gets. Virtually every climactic high note was between a quarter tone and a semitone sharp. This lack of focus means the voice just doesn't cut through the orchestration in the climaxes. Additionally there's little sense of legato and not much colouring of the line or use of the text for expression. I actually didn't completely dislike it, wasn't as awful as all that - the voice is generally secure and quite attractive, it just doesn't quite deliver when it needs to. The three Wood Nymphs (Anna Devin, Madeleine Pierard and Justina Gringyte) were all Jette Parker Young Artists, and all were very very good indeed - best I've ever heard from the Young Artists programme. Whoever was singing the first nymph (the cast sheet was not specific) I would genuinely have preferred hearing as Rusalka - her tone was sweeter and her pianissimos were unbelievable.

The rest of the cast were superb too. That Czech is fantastic language to sing in was amply demonstrated by Agnes Zwierko as the witch Jezibaba and Bryan Hymel as the prince. Zwierko has a very unusual sounding voice, very large, very rich throughout (with obvious registral breaks), but she really digs into the text using the language's wonderful consonants and also has a huge palette of vocal colours to draw on. The Prince is a difficult role to cast as it needs fairytale sweetness but a significant amount of heft - Hymel was pretty ideal I thought - taking full advantage of the pure vowels of Czech to create a juicy, ringing Italianate sound. Rock steady and warm all the way through the voice, his high notes superbly rounded. He seemed to drift about a bit on stage, not the greatest actor, but seriously fine vocalising.

Alan Held was a very good Vodnik, the voice resonant and clear and big. Again absolutely rock solid all the way through the range. No complaints here. Petra Lang sang the great role of the Foreign Princess pretty well - ideally this voice should be steely, dramatic and maybe even slightly squally to contrast as much as possible with Rusalka's ultra lyrical, silvery youthfulness - which just about describes Lang's voice - just a tiny bit more volume might have been welcome. Daniel Grice, also on the Young Artists Programme offered some beautiful singing in the small baritone role of the Huntsman. Gyula Orendt and Ilse Eerens as the Gamekeeper and Kitchen Boy respectively were both also very good in their scenes together. Rare that I'm this happy with a cast!

Sunday 26 February 2012

Ariadne Auf Naxos with Renée Fleming, take 3


Last night. (See first night for the main review, and second night here). UPDATE last two paragraphs.

Even more things in the production irked this time - ineptitudes, infelicities, clumsyness everywhere. There's just absolutely no attempt on Arlaud's part to engage with the opera artistically, emotionally or intellectually - there's no exploration of what it might be about. I also really dislike the fact that everyone regularly comes out of character in the "opera" act in such clumsy, obvious ways - there might be something in this idea, but it certainly didn't work here. And again, the seria characters are left floundering acting wise - they just have to stand and do their best with the text in terms of hand movements and facial expressions - no attempt whatsoever at creating characters here, either symbollic or realistic.

Compared to both previous nights, the Vorspiel seemed a bit tentative from everyone this time, not least Thielemann and the orchestral players. Was it the fact that it was being broadcast live? Sophie Koch was not on quite as good form as on the second night, though her Musik ist eine heilige Kunst was the best yet. Hopefully for the DVD they will properly edit the different nights together, rather than just use one night and patch with the other nights.

Renée was more positive than before in the opening scena, though there was a bit of a grainyness in the sound this time. The melismatic phrase Ein Schoenes War was done in two breaths as most sopranos do it, rather than in one breath as she managed so beautifully on the first and second nights (and on her previous excerpt recording). Minor, but an indicator of things to come. The final duet was not quite as beautiful as the second night, and she seemed to be carrying more tension in the sound which meant the lines were a little more broken up and there were even a few yelps at the end of phrases. I enjoyed it, but think the second night was her best performance vocally.

Robert Dean Smith did well, but again felt his best night was the second night - grainyness in his sound too, and some of the top notes didn't come off quite so sweetly here.

You can watch it here for another 89 days, you lucky things. I haven't yet listened but will be interested to hear what it all sounded like up close.

UPDATE 27/02/12: just watched it on the internet. The production comes across better here because of all the close ups - the monotony is broken up in the slow scenes, all the extraneous action is diminished in the over busy scenes, and things can be framed to look more beautiful (whereas on stage of course we see the whole thing all the time). Very interesting seeing a performance live and then on DVD - makes you realise how different the experiences are. Some productions will undoubtedly be better on DVD than in the theatre...

What's also better is that you can see Fleming's characterisation in her face - much more convincing up close than in the theatre. Actually she is pretty amazing - it is still most magnificent and controlled Strauss singing of our age, she has the finest legato of anyone for this repertoire, the verbal acuity also unparalleled and one just wishes she had done this earlier so that the ravishing sound was still there. The low notes are still beautiful, but the top is etiolated. Still I'm glad that it's more convincing/moving up close for the sake of the DVD.

Saturday 25 February 2012

Lang Lang in Baden Baden

Marc Piollet
Mozarteumorchester Salzburg
Lang Lang

Having never seen Lang Lang live before, and only having heard short clips of his playing on youtube, I was quite interested to see him play.

The Mozarteumorchester Salzburg started with the Consecration of the House Overture, one of the weakest and least interesting works of Beethoven's late period. Despite this, their playing just oozed quality - superb ensemble with perfect Beethovinian style, individual personalities blending to become a single entity.

When Lang Lang joined them for Beethoven's first piano concerto they acted as ideal support and partners to his piano playing, easily matching his energy and accuracy. Lang Lang is a fairly astonishing technician, every note in place, every detail controlled and precise, and his playing in the first movement captured the movement's ebulient invention very well. The hushed simplicity of the slow movement was also delivered beautifully by both soloist and orchestra - probably the loveliest sound of the evening. The finale felt less focussed and overly discursive but the blame might lie as much at Beethoven's youthful feet, as at the performer's.

After the interval we heard the Leonora Overture no.3, which with its spicy rhythms and harmonic twists sounded for all the world like proto Dvorak. Or rather we might say, one realises quite how deep the influence of Beethoven was on Dvorak (the apogee of course being the quasi homage of the scherzo of the 9th symphony). All this perfectly managed playing, however amazing in itself, was beginning to lack something - a little more sauce, a little risk would have made it truly memorable.

Then Lang returned to the stage for Beethoven's 4th Piano concerto which is perhaps my favourite of the five, with its surprising poetic delicacy, highly unorthodox structure, heartbreaking moments of calm, and intricate layerings in the loud moments, rather than diamond edged stormyness as is Beethoven's usual recourse. Here is a piece where subtlety is key and Lang struggled to match Beethoven's demands - not technically of course, but in place of quiet shading of the line, high drama in the smallest of gestures, the broad spectrum of colours and almost speaking interplay with the orchestra that the piece contains we got a sort of freakishly clear and clean account that managed to say very little. Superb though his digital facility is and odd though it seems to say it, Lang wasn't ever able to make one forget that he was playing a percussion instrument.

The audience's response was of course rapturous and we got an encore of a Liszt romance which was actually beautifully played. Overall though, I left the concert hall feeling rather empty emotionally and spiritually, despite undeniably excellent playing from all. The ticket price structure for the seats was €210/172/139/107/63 which is absolutely exorbitant. The Maisky concert the next day was almost exactly half this per seat (+/- €5), which I still think is outrageously expensive if we compare it to normal concert hall series where we might easly see these two star artists. As a result the audience was comprised of very rich old people and ultra hardcore fans (the guy next to me was recording everything on his iphone and filming every single one of Lang's passages on and off the stage. He didn't even look happy.)

As a slightly contentious side note: All Beethoven programmes seem to be more common an occurence than they are for any other composer (Shostakovich second most likely?), but to me the idea rarely comes off with him. Even if, as here, there is work from a variety of his periods; and even while admitting that his superlative compositional mastery causes him to rarely or never misjudge things, means and ends never at odds and indeed usually enriching one another; the ear begins to tire, a little too quickly does his orchestration start to sound unvaried, his unfailing tendency to build pieces from the most basic of triadic motives seem wearisome, his periodic interchange of bombast and beauty seems all too predictable. Of course he is one of the greatest of all composers and taken on its own, virtually every one of his compositions works superbly well on its own terms (there are a few exceptions), but the cumulative effect of his work is not one of adding facets and aspects to a portrait of the man as it might be in say, an all Ravel concert or an all Stravinsky one - with Beethoven, the whole man is revealed in every work, throughout his life he always ploughs the same furrow, delving ever deeper into his particular font of genius, until the mysteries of his final, greatest phase, which are of such unfathomable unearthly perfection that they remain forever radical and almost outside of style or time or place altogether.

Not to say that such a concert can't be enjoyable (though I boldly suggest that most won't be), just that it is almost never telling or illuminating programming.

Dvorak with Mischa Maisky and Bamberger Symphoniker


Hanging around in Baden-Baden during the Ariadne auf Naxos run (and my god is it boring here), I decided to go and review this. The short version is Maisky: schrecklich!, Bambergers: toll! Read it here on Bachtrack.

One thing I don't mention in the review is the fact that Maisky wiped his face with a towel vigorously in EVERY orchestral tutti. I started counting how many times he did it and it ranged between 15 and 25 wipes EACH time. Extremely distracting and quite unpleasant to watch. And the playing is just not good. He also played an encore of the Sarabande from the second Bach suite which was the most phraseless, vibrato'd un-in-time Bach playing I have ever heard live. Mystifying. Having never seen him live before I am perplexed as to why he has such a following. Perhaps he was good in his youth?

Thursday 23 February 2012

Ariadne Auf Naxos with Renée Fleming take 2

Some thoughts on the second night. On the whole I enjoyed it more, and musically it seemed like a slightly better night than last time too.

It was a very badly behaved audience - stuff getting dropped, people talking, so much unstifled coughing. In virtually every one of the major arias there was some huge noise. Horrible. Astonishingly there were loads of unsold seats in the balcony...

Renée seemed more relaxed vocally this time, giving slightly more in her opening scena. The top pianissimo B flat was wonderful, but there was audience noise around that moment so one can only hope that it wasn't picked up by the mics. The duet bloomed even more than it did last time too, and her passage from 'Gibt es kein Hinuber?' was really breathtakingly lovely. We'll see how it all turns out up close on the recording. It's being broadcast on Saturday at apparently, and will be available for 3 months for free (not sure whether it will be in every country). Expect youtube clips too. Not sure whether it will the first night, or that Saturday night.

Sophie Koch was better this time as well, some truly radiant singing in the middle of the act and then the duet, everything seeming more in control but with more risk taking. The sound and focus reminded me somewhat of Christa Ludwig. Only the final "Musik ist eine heilige Kunst" wasn't quite as lovely as the rest.

Robert Dean Smith sounded better than last time too, the famous climactic highs delivered as if they were no trouble at all. I was again hugely impressed.

More things irritated in the production, but I won't go into them. The rest of the singers were much the same as last time.

Sunday 19 February 2012

Renée Fleming's first Ariadne Auf Naxos in Baden-Baden

Festspielhaus Baden-Baden

Photo: Andrea Kremper

Ariadne Auf Naxos is another of my all time favourite operas, but like Rosenkavalier it is a bit of a fragile creature and its imperfections make it hard to pull off: it is very difficult to stage well, and I think I can honestly say I've never seen a production that entirely convinced, especially in the final half hour. Hofmannsthal's central poetic idea about the conflict in life between maintaining our principles in the face of the mystery of transformation and renewal is a beautiful one and a constant theme of his work - we see it between Elektra and her sister Chrysothemis, in the Marschallin, and then also in the Kaiserin in Die Frau Ohne Schatten. Hofmannsthal was at great pains to explain it all to Strauss in a number of interesting letters which explain his ideas, so we are in no doubt about his intentions. The problem though, which Robin Holloway points out in one of his superb essays on Strauss, is that the central poetic idea is not fully realised in the libretto, and further, as Strauss realised straight away, Hofmannsthal does not produce a convincing enough dramatic scenario to support the symbolism (as he would also fail to do in their remaining collaborations, to ever more painful degrees).

It is absolutely imperative then, that a production of Ariadne auf Naxos is helped along by a sensitive director who can make something of the drama and really make it clear what is going on. Additionally, the whole piece plays so much with style (a Strauss speciality) that there needs to be a convincing aesthetic that can artfully encapsulate both the seria and buffa elements, making them feel sufficiently contrasted and yet part of a whole. Not an easy undertaking.

The Vorspiel, added to the revised "1916" version to make it viable for the operatic stage, is in fact the work's finest portion both from composer and librettist; one is inclined to say it is the greatest of all their collaborations along with the Marschallin's monologue in Der Rosenkavalier. The fleet dramatic pacing, the effortless mix of parlando and aria, the feeling of well sketched character, setting, events, details, the hubbub and bustle, all in perfect accord between composer and librettist, make it a very special half hour of music. It almost doesn't need directing beyond what is written on the page.

photo: Andrea Kremper

The director, Philippe Arlaud, gave it a slightly surreal contemporary setting, with big white hanging panels, a piano centre stage and various crates and signs dotted around. Sophie Koch as the composer was dressed in a suit with a mop of curly hair and delivered this melodramatic part looking and acting not unlike Rollando Villazon. I can't imagine that this wasn't a deliberate reference. Koch is a singer who perplexes me - she can be quite wonderful, and her high register particularly is extremely beautiful, but the middle often has too much vibrato for comfort and her German diction renders her largely incomprehensible. She has a ridiculously flexible mouth and insists on stretching it in every dimension: surely if she calmed this down she would be easier to understand. The chaos of this particular staging meant that the contrast between her desperate outbursts and her more noble, innig music was somewhat lost, though her tone colour might have been varied more too. Still she shined where she was meant to and got a rapturous reception at the curtain.

René Kollo was a far less cynical Haushofmeister than usual, and I missed the ironic pointing and general skepticism that the character usually treats the musicians and artist with. Christian Baumgartel was a very hoarse voiced tanzmeister, but Eike Wilm Schulte was a superb Musiklehrer, with some of the best diction I have ever heard. Though there were some nice moments of comedy, overall this was too chaotic and directionless a version of the Vorspiel for it to render the tightly wrought dramatic arch moving or even convincing.

Then to the opera proper. Here Arlaud opted for constant (wordless) interjections from characters in the vorspiel that properly are no longer a real part of the action, giving the whole thing a work-in-progress feel where one was never meant to take any of the action seriously. Needless to say I found this very distracting, it seemed as though the characters didn't give a damn about giving their audience a convincing show, and were all just trying to show off. While this may be true in the play within a play idea, it doesn't make for a very involving evening of opera, and it very quickly got boring. The composer comes onstage to hand the three nymphs their sheet music on stands during the prelude whilst they all prepare in front of a dressing room mirror. Ariadne, sitting on stage behind a screen quickly darts off to retrieve her forgotten veil. The line between the onstage "stage" and onstage "backstage" was not well defined however which makes this potentially interesting idea rather lazy and charmless in execution. At the back of the stage sits a bewigged and glamourously dressed opera audience, though of course the singing is delivered to the real audience in the other direction. Later, in Zerbinetta's aria, the men of the on stage audience flood onstage to the horror of their female partners and surround the pink dressed Zerbinetta a la Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend.

The characters for the buffa comedia del'arte scenes are dressed like circus performers or french mime artists, but their antics aren't really that funny. Throughout, I felt that Arlaud failed to really listen to the character of the music and libretto in order to inform his directional choices and the same was true of Andrea Uhmann's costumes - from both too broad, too bold, too plain - the result was that it was hard to reconcile the visuals with the sound and the subtlety of the music was lost. The seria characters are essentially dressed in concert dress with accoutrements - Ariadne gets a black veil and a red gown to reveal when she undergoes her spiritual transformation, and Bacchus gets a little white sash to go over the top of his creme suit. But there's not enough sense of character and contrast in these choices, and with the stage just a set of white steps, a few curved panels and a photo of a sky projected at the back, it all falls rather flat. The final duet essentially just becomes a concert performance of an opera, the two leads just standing and singing in evening dress with the amount of acting one would expect at such an event (i.e. there, but minimal and audience directed).

The one scene that doesn't drag is Zerbinetta's aria, which of course is a gift for directors with its flirtations, easy to stage events and final orgasmic cadenza. Afterwards Ariadne is hauled in by a minotaur (obviously it raised a laugh, but I couldn't tell you why it happened, beyond the obvious Theseus link). Right at the very end, Arlaud does something rather beautiful: Ariadne and Bacchus ascend to the back of the stage and appear hand in hand as black silhouettes in front of a white background, a simple image of loving companionship walking into an uncertain but hopeful future. Overall though, it felt like Arlaud had failed to engage with the opera and didn't seem to see its dramatic structure beyond a series of largely disconnected scenes. It made for a long evening.

Photo: Andrew Kremper
Renée Fleming started talking about doing Ariadne auf Naxos in 2008 and finally, four years on, she's realised that goal. She is still the world's leading Strauss soprano and this is her fifth full Strauss role and first new role of any kind in seven years. (Previous Strauss role debuts: Marschallin 1995, Arabella 1998, Madeleine 2004, Daphne 2005). I doubt she'll sing it often (or ever again?) as it is really a size too big for her voice but I have always preferred more silvery lyric and lyric spintos in this role than the ever heavier dramatic sopranos that seem to be the current casting preference. Having heard her recent Met Rodelinda I was a little worried I have to say, but back in Strauss territory she seemed much more comfortable, the voice sounding better than it has done in the last year. For her initial entrance scena she was clearly holding back and failed to make the impact that the part requires, but she was saving herself for the final duet in which she really soared and did some lovely things. She is one of the few sopranos currently singing with a really well developed chest register and that was on full show here, thrilling as always. I was struck again by her extraordinarily good German diction, everything clear and nicely pointed whilst never sacrificing the line, which of course is why she is the esteemed Strauss interpreter that she is, but I did wish that she had done this role five or even ten years earlier when the voice was sounding a little more fresh. But then heavier roles tend to the age the voice, which might have curtailed her career. We can't have everything!

It cannot now be denied that the voice, whilst still beautiful, is past its effortless, ravishing prime, and the difference even from the Ariadne excerpts she recorded 3 years ago is noticeable. Basically there are less overtones in the sound which means it doesn't sound as full or rich up high, and the apparently endless breath of her prime is now reduced to more mortal levels. As a Fleming admirer and devotee this is very sad for me, but realistically it must be accepted. We can be supremely grateful for the many superlative recordings she has left as a legacy, whilst also still admitting that there are still quite a few years of healthy singing ahead of her. We'll see how she tackles the role on subsequent nights.

photo: Andrea Kremper

Acting wise, she was given little to do and so sort of floundered - she's always at her best acting wise when playing realistic women similar to herself (intellectual, poised, wistful) with some sort of yearning and nostalgia to do text/music wise - hence the Marschallin, Tatyana, Rusalka, and the Figaro Countess are all ideal, and not coincidentally her most engaging stage creations. Ariadne is certainly related to this sort of figure but needs a sort of epic solidity to go with the nostalgia, which is not out of Fleming's range, but certainly needs to be helped by the staging. And here, no help was forthcoming.

Robert Dean Smith as Bacchus managed this ridiculous part incredibly well, never once sounding strained. His tone was firm and full throughout and his diction decent, so I was extremely impressed. It's not my favourite voice, but he sung every note, and sang it well which is largely a thankless task. Acting was minimal largely for the reason already stated - no direction.

Jane Archibald is a talented coloratura and whilst starting a little bland warmed up during the evening. In a production like this, of course she sort of stole the show with her holographic pink glitter bodice, pink ostrich feather tu-tu, huge cleavage and Cleopatra wig. Vocally she was pretty good, the coloratura all in place with the second half of her aria being particularly fine, lacking only a trill. If I'm being really harsh however, I would say that she isn't yet a very distinctive singer, but she's still quite young and time will tell if she turns into a true vocal personality. Basically I'm trying to rationalise why I wasn't bowled over. Will have a think after seeing her second performance.

Other roles were all nice whilst never being exceptional - I felt that the buffo scenes could have been a touch more stylish in delivery. Thielemann led an exceptional Sächsischen Staatskapelle Dresden, the playing always refined, beautiful and with exceptional ensemble - really very special, and made me wish we had an opera orchestra of this quality in England. Thielemann always kept things on a chamber scale, which suited the singers, but it did mean that occasionally this fine music making was swamped by the garish visuals of the stage. He remains, with Eschenbach, my favourite living Strauss conductor.

The production is being filmed for DVD so it will be interesting to hear what the microphones hear, and what the close ups reveal acting wise. It seemed like a missed opportunity that it should be such a dull, unengaged staging, especially since this is the Ariadne that Fleming has been recorded in for posterity, if indeed she does any others.

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Figaro at ROH

And so we come to the last opera of the "Da Ponte cycle", which is actually the first. Figaro is the most perfect Mozart opera in my opinion, which is to say the most perfect opera of all. Every number is not just superbly beautiful as in Cosi and Don Giovanni, but also memorable, dramatically apt, emotionally revealing - the musical and dramatic means are never at odds. The characters are beautifully drawn, likeable, three dimensional, alive with real feelings always exquisitely revealed in the vocal line even when it might be lacking in the text, the action is subtle, nuanced, multi layered, and the orchestra teems with a soft hued delicacy and felicitous brilliance more refined than anything he achieved before or after.*

Just as he did with Meistersinger, McVicar updates the action to the Regency era. The political undertones of the opera (more explicit in the original Beaumarchais play), the theme of master and servant and class frictions, were again very pertinent during this era of course, so the updating makes perfect sense in that way. McVicar doesn't force the point though, and he introduces nothing major that is not in Da Ponte's libretto, nor does he leave anything out: mainly this is a way to do something new visually with the piece and avoid the crinolines and fussy 18th century decor which can be so distracting when badly done.

And it's wonderful. The beautifully capacious sets, all high windows and creme panelling, together with the always sensitive lighting of Paule Constable gives the whole thing a soft, fresh aired luminosity and allows the cast to breath in the space. Tanya McCallin designed both the sets and costumes which gave the piece an aesthetic unity. Act changes are all deftly and smoothly handled with huge moving panels and sections which never seem cheap or clunky. Everything, in other words, is working in perfect accord.

The cast work wonderfully together too, revival direction by Leah Hausman keeping things feeling spontaneous. The casting is excellent, not just vocally but in terms of the dramatic temperament and even the physical stature of each singer as well. Rachel Willis Sorensen makes a gorgeous Countess, vocally polished, controlled and expressive, actually pretty astonishing considering she is just 28 years old. She might be someone very special indeed. She really plays the part beautifully too: poised, restrained in her gestures and with a serene countenance entirely befitting her role. She is also very tall, towering statuesquely over Figaro, Susanna and the rest of the cast so looks great on stage. Lucas Meachem is a superb Count (so much so that one didn't regret Keenlyside's recent withdrawal from the part) displaying the requisite suave assurance and composure of the character, with vocal acting that was sophisticated and commanding. I liked him very much much last summer as Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne but here he was even stronger, and the role seemed to fit better.

Ildebrando D'Arcangelo has a wonderfully rich bass-baritone voice which is just a pleasure to hear. There's a tendency only to boom and the voice isn't well supported when he sings quietly, but it's such a lovely voice, and he's a charmingly affable and sexually appealing enough Figaro that this doesn't matter much at all. The chemistry with Aleksandra Kurzak as Susanna was palpable, and though Kurzak has a tendency to overact, she was very good here I thought, with less of the mugging I've seen her do in the past. Vocally too she seemed very at ease, producing some lovely things, even if not quite as special as her colleagues. The lesser parts were brilliantly and characterfully taken by Ann Murray (as Marcellina), Carlo Lepore (a slightly camp Bartolo) and Jeremy White (Antonio) - luxury casting all. With such talent on offer it seemed a shame that their arias should be cut in Act IV. Susana Gaspar made a minute Barbarina, reminding us that she is meant to be twelve years old (as Anna Gottlieb, the first singer of this role was in 1786) making it all the seemier that the Count might have been after her. The voice is sweet and apt for the role though the part never seems big enough to really be able to judge the quality of a singer. The only real disappointment in the cast was Anna Bonitatibus as a rather wispy and breathy Cherubino, finely acted though it was.

What McVicar understands so well about this opera is not just the dramatic pacing and the relationships that need to be carefully sculpted, but also the spiritual difference between the different characters - the Count and Countess' travails really do contain something more painful and earnest, their reconciliation far more meant and heartfelt because more was at risk - things that the servants simply do not fully fathom. Thus Mozart adds a considerable amount of ambiguity to this apparent class satire and critique of the upper classes. McVicar really makes sure every detail of every character is right, and while there are only a few original touches, it's just satisfying for being so meticulous. The finale of Act II is one of the very greatest things that Mozart ever wrote and here it was wonderfully done - not just musically, but dramatically every gesture spoke and was reflected in the text and especially the music - that McVicar listens to the music so intently for clues is one of his greatest strengths.

Pappano's conducting of this score is absolutely superb, really truly beautiful. The joy he gets from it is so clearly communicated to his musicians who respond in kind. The pacing and instrumental balance was always meticulously well planned and executed: the difference between this sort of playing and the Cosi I saw two weeks before is amazing, and it is worlds apart from the Don Giovanni I witnessed. The ROH orchestra can and will play superbly for conductors they really like!

The best operatic experience I've had in a long while. It's almost sold out, so you might have to queue on the day for a ticket, but few productions this season have been as good as this one.

*(sorry, I can't put it better than I did before!)

Monday 13 February 2012

Nash Ensemble with Felicity Lott

The Nash Ensemble are one of the finest chamber groups in London so its always a pleasure to hear them. I reviewed this concert for Bachtrack. Here's a taster:

The Nash Ensembles' "Echoes of Romanticism" series at the Wigmore Hall, of which this concert was a part, is not really an exploration of romanticism as such, but rather a charting of the rise and fall of Teutonic music between Mozart and Schoenberg. This is a fascinating story to tell, and this evening provided a particular insight into Richard Strauss – a key and particularly divisive figure in this narrative, his career spanning as it did from the highest high-romanticism to the era's last glorious gasps in the perenially celebrated works of his "Indian Summer" period. Wagner and Mozart, his two musical heroes, were each represented by a work which seemed to have a particular bearing or resonance on the Strauss work presented here in excerpts: his final opera Capriccio.

Read the full review here. Interesting to hear Lott at this stage in her career. At 64 it's amazing she's performing at all, but it really is quite a wide vibrato she has now. I've never been a super big fan as she often feels a little reserved and noncommital in her delivery, but the Jarvi discs she recorded of Strauss orchestral songs for instance are absolutely stonkingly beautiful.

Monday 6 February 2012

Der Rosenkavalier at ENO


Der Rosenkavalier is one of my favourite operas, but it is also one of the most problematic operas in the standard repertoire, and I do not love it uncritically. On the whole this is top drawer Strauss, one of the most vital and brilliant scores that he ever wrote, allied to one of the finest librettos of any opera. There is so much to love - the classic bits that are often excerpted (the Act I monologue, Act II presentation of the Rose, Act III trio and duet) are amongst the most gorgeous set pieces in opera since Mozart. It is, like its predecessors in Strauss' oeuvre, meticulously crafted, millions of notes splurged across hundreds of pages of score, the whole an unbelievably opulent and ravishingly beautiful aural tapestry which glows with a genuine warmth and a saccharine beauty that Strauss never quite equaled in his other operas. As always his orchestration is absolutely masterful, never misjudged, the breathtakingly beautiful instrumentatations as apt for the aching harmonies as Salome's frothing counterpoint was for the sexually febrile phantasmagoria of that work. Der Rosenkavalier is however about an hour too long, or rather, there is an hour of music in it which is second or even third rate - principally the middle of act II, and beginning of Act III - where Strauss slips into notespinning and dross, and I have never seen a production which has been able to save the audience from these appalling languors. It is an operetta story, given a Wagnerian musicdrama treatment both in the music and in the libretto so whilst it certainly goes further and deeper than any operetta of this period, it also can't quite support it's own massive, glutinous weight.

As already mentioned, the libretto is superb, with Hofmannsthal delighting in providing providing endless "period" details, both actual and from the stage of the time it was set (Marie Therese's Vienna of the 1740s) culled from diaries, his beloved Moliere (from which sprung the later Ariadne auf Naxos also), commedia dell'arte, traditional farce, Beaumarchais and seemingly a hundred other sources to create a complete and vivid Vienna that never existed. This sentimental nostalgia for some notion of "old Vienna" was very common at this time in Viennese culture, even amongst forward looking modern writers and thinkers like Hofmannsthal. That he should be so interested in accurate period detail is fascinating when the overarching concerns of the piece are so clearly contemporary to his time. The plight of women, the atmosphere of sexual infidelities of his time, the ending of old empires in decadence and decay and the rise of the middle classes, the breaking down of class barriers - these were all highly pertinent issues in Vienna in 1909.

One particularly piquant source of inspiration for Hofmannsthal is Hogarth's Marriage a-La-Mode series. Piquant because it is Strauss' polar opposite, Stravinsky, with his own genius librettist, Auden, who also looked to Hogarth to produce their own 18th century pastiche, with such different results.

Anyone who knows the first act of Rosenkavalier well will have fun spotting the number of details Hofmannsthal culled from the above Hogarth. Even the sexual tones of the act are here (though only implicitly): the paintings on the walls all depict scenes of biblical seduction. Elements of act II derive from another of this series.

Operatically then, what are the precedents? Most obvious is Beaumarchais via Mozart and Da Ponte in Le Nozze di Figaro - in fact it was Strauss' initial idea to produce a modern Figaro. The parallels between the Countess and the Marschallin are clear - she is trapped in wedlock to a husband who has ceased to love her and though saddened she is not embittered and remains noble and strong. Dramatically too she functions similarly in the piece: she has the most beautiful music and adds a seriousness and wistful melancholia to the work, though in the earlier work the quasi-sexual undertones to the relationship that she has with her young (travesti) Godson are only hinted at rather than explicit. The passionately impulsive, confused young man played by a woman, who then dresses up as a woman is also an idea Hofmannsthal takes from the earlier piece, though is a classic element of Viennese farce and adds curious elements of sexual ambiguity (and sexual frisson) to proceedings. But the character of the Marschallin also derives from Wagner's Hans Sachs - her reflective monologues on the subject of aging and the passing of time and also her relinquishing of a younger lover. Both are amongst the most moving and complete characters that these two composers created, and are a gift for talented performers.

This is the first revival of David McVicar's 2008 production for the ENO. It's all very traditional looking, with crinolines, lace and chandeliers, so traditionalists need not be afraid. The set is appropriately grand, but not overdetailed, and looks like a palace in the first stages of disrepair - the Marschallin is reflected in her surroundings. Act I was well paced, and if there wasn't quite enough bustle in the central portion the romantic scenes which frame it were very movingly directed. At the end of the act, as the Marschallin lies sobbing silently in her bed, the lighting in the room becomes dimmed and autumnal, and this evocation of day changing to night and of summer becoming autumn intimated in its understated way a death scene.

Act II is difficult to direct because it climaxes so early musically and the rest seems like tedious working out. Unfortunately, the set hardly changed although the location had, which meant it was visually fairly boring, and McVicar failed to make the action characterful enough for it not to drag. The presentation of the Rose was at least well handled, and with such a large cast watching from onstage, and such restrained action from both of the young lovers, one was really drawn into these characters trying to contain their rapture and ecstasy in such an embarrassingly public space.

The farce of the third act was great, largely due to John Tomlinson, and meant it hardly dragged at all. Unfortunately again the set had hardly changed meaning that the Marschallin's bedroom turned out to be little different from a room in a brothel. Maybe McVicar was trying to show the moral equivalency of the three social classes here, but I don't think so. Hmm. Though the Marschallin's entrance was commanding, I found the final trio strangely underwhelming both dramatically and musically.

This brings me on to the biggest problem with this production: The ENO. The problems are two fold. First, the Coliseum. The acoustics are just awful, and in this of all works you need a combination of detail and power for it to make its impact. Both of these things were lacking here and what emerged from the pit was a sort of hazy, pasteley, mezzo-piano mush. I had an excellent seat (row B of the Dress circle), so it wasn't the famously terrible boxyness of the large overhangs. At first I thought it might have been the fault of Edward Gardner with the ENO orchestra who seemed to be holding everything on a leash, but I think it was as much to do with the building as anything. It's impossible to be enveloped in the sound in there.

The second problem is that it is sung in English. I've complained about this before, but again, in this of all works, the marriage of text and music is one of the most beautiful in all of opera, and to divorce them is to lose something fundamental to its appeal. Though this translation is a good one as far as it can be, it has not one tenth of the beauty of Hofmannsthal's original German. And though I speak German, even for someone who doesn't understand German I think this is an issue: the way that Strauss uses the language, the rhythm of the speech, the colours of the words and contours of each phrase, these things are all compromised so heavily as to be disfiguring when sung in translation and a very significant part of the beauty of the work is lost.*

Before I attended this, I was very worried about Amanda Roocroft's Marschallin after the highly uneven singing I witnessed from her at the ROH last year in Peter Grimes. Here things were more under control, though we weren't treated to the luxury silk on velvet that we have come to expect from singers in this role. Her acting was largely good, though in her Act I monologue she was singing it to the audience too much - we are meant to feel that we are witnessing an extremely intimate moment of reflection and self doubt - the drama needs to be internal and draw us in, rather than presented to us as if she really is talking to an audience, even imagined. Sarah Connolly is a good Octavian, though I can't trumpet her like others seem to - the voice is a little mature sounding and she seems a bit too commanding as a man - the vulnerability that we might expect in a 17 year old just isn't there. Sophie Bevan I thought sounded a little dark for her role - this is the apogee of silvery soubrette roles, it needs to be effortless and girlish and shimmering. She can certainly sing the notes though, but I think she might be better cast in something else (Donna Elvira? Gluck? Handel?)

The role of Ochs is one of the lowest and highest of all Bass roles, and John Tomlinson barely made it at either end of the tessitura. But the middle is still firm and powerful, and he is a superb actor - absolutely inhabiting this role, he brings to Ochs a tremendous energy and vitality that make him almost too likable - certainly the most likable Ochs I've ever witnessed! A joy to see him as ever, despite the vocal wear. The many lesser roles were mostly well taken, though Gwyn Hughes Jones was a horribly forced and nasal sounding Italian tenor.

All in all then, not the most enjoyable outing of this lovely work, and not quite worth it for its defects. But it was nice to see it just before Figaro at the ROH and so soon after Meistersinger.

*The ENO will, for the first time do an opera in it's original language in three years time - Ariadne Auf Naxos with the prologue in English and the Opera in German - so there is hope!!! I know so many people who actively avoid the ENO mainly because of the English singing. I really think it's one of the things which holds them back. I don't know anyone who likes going because it's in English.