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Saturday 30 June 2012

Susan Graham at the Wigmore Hall


So glad I went to this. Such brilliant singing and a real treat for me - I don't expect to hear singing of this quality live more than a handful of times a year. You can listen on iplayer, but it sounds so different - it's still very nice, but the voice is even more beautiful in the hall.

Anyway, I reviewed it for Bachtrack. The Bachtrack editor changed some of the "One"s to "I"s, which looks a bit jarring to me, but maybe it reads better for other people. I realise it's purely a taste issue, but for me, "one noticed how well preserved the voice was" puts an objectifying distance on it, whereas "I noticed how well preserved the voice was" just seems like a story, or a stream of consciousness observation. Interesting to be challenged on it, and I might bear it in mind and change my style in the future to omit either "one"s or "I"s. Also this is not my most elegant prose, but it basically communicates what I felt about the thing.

Here it is:

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Les Troyens at the ROH


Where to start? This is a massive evening, 5 acts, 5.5 hours long, huge cast, huge chorus, huge sets, huge score. I do very much like Berlioz, the good bits are just so good, but he is so maddeningly inconsistent, and Les Troyens, a piece which should be his magnum opus, puts his defects as well as his strengths into stark profile. As an orchestrator he is of course superb, one of the most original and successful of all composers in this regard. Harmonically too he is an innovator, but more accidentally here - there's a strong feeling that he is working things out empirically chord to chord, piece to piece, which makes for some fantastic and fantastically odd moments, but it also can prevent him building in the larger range, and when he chooses to use such enormous canvases as he does in Les Troyens, this becomes problematic. The vocal writing is not what one might call glamorous - no chances to show boat for the principals, though it is all very demanding.

McVicar's production does its best to sort through this gigantically chaotic piece and like the score, succeeds in places and is found wanting elsewhere. Staging wise, the first half, comprising Acts I and II, which depicts the fall of Troy to the Greeks, was most successful. At the outset of the opera we are presented with the curving outer wall of the now no longer besieged Troy, the chorus singing joyously about the Greeks mysterious retreat. Cassandra of course is less than convinced. McVicar has chosen to update this to the early half of the 19th century, a period he seems to love. I'm not sure if he has a particular war in mind that he was translating it to, but it basically worked. Early reports suggested that he was doing one of those horrible mixing of all cultures thing again, like the disastrous Aida, but if this was the original intention, there was very little sign of that here - aside from odd anachronisms created by the updating (pagan rituals and gods in Christian times) it was basically all from this period.

The Trojan horse when it came was absolutely magnificent - only the head was seen on stage, beautifully lit, descending slowly on the audience, and moving with so many degrees of freedom that it seemed like a living horse, rather than a wooden one. In fact it was made of lots of welded together Greek arms - cannons and muskets and the like, a nice touch that added to the idea of it as a peace offering (but also simultaneously as a massive warning of the threat it contains). At the end of Act 2, its mane becomes a flaming wall of fire, and it breathes fire. It's difficult to describe how awesome the sight of it is, and its basically worth the price of admission for this alone.

As Cassandra, Anna Caterina Antonacci is quite splendid and she received the biggest ovations at the end of the night. The intensity of her delivery is thrilling, though I did think that she was given a bit too much scene chewing to do by McVicar - I wishes all her actions had been a bit less OTT, or perhaps it would have been better to have her completely batshit insane, and really extreme. She's 51 now so naturally the voice is no longer quite what it once was, in terms of beauty or flexibility or volume, but its still very in tune, basically does what she wants it too, and she's expressive and very much gets the point across, so one never wishes for something else from her. Fabio Capitanucci is her fiancé Coroebus and is presented as an insensitive, pompous idiot, barely looking at her, let alone listening to her dire warnings - McVicar seems to have drawn a blank as to why on earth these two characters are courting - so different are they in every way, and they don't seem at all comfortable on stage as a couple. He sings well, though there are even less glory moments for him than the other leads.

One of the most affecting scenes was the royal pageant in Act I, which culminates in the presentation of the horse. Hecuba is superbly acted by Pamela Helen Stephen, maybe the best acting I've seen on the ROH stage this year - such dignity, subtlety and commanding presence. It's a tiny role and barely a singing part - I don't think there even are any solo lines for her and initially I thought they had just hired an actress who was mouthing the choruses. Truly spell binding - if only all opera acting could be this good! The slightly bigger role of her husband King Priam was also superbly acted by Robert Lloyd, here portrayed as ancient and verging on infirm, getting by on pure grit and ineluctable authority.

This sort of genius in small moments characterised the whole evening. Many of the small roles were wonderfully taken by Jette Parker Young Artists - Jihoon Kim made a very good Ghost of Hector and Barbara Senator a very good Asanius (and doesn't she look like Nina Stemme here!). Even better were Ji-Min Park as a slightly breathy, but very beautiful sounding Iopas, Hanna Hipp who sounded magnificently rich and dark in the larger role of Anna, Dido's sister, and also veteran Brindley Sherratt in wonderfully booming voice as Narbal. Not a single cast member in fact was found wanting.

Acts III to V chart rockier ground dramatically, though the most beautiful music is to be found here. I wasn't very keen Es Devlin's sets here, which were a sort of cartoony false perspective Carthage, with a central disc with a tiny buildings on it which Dido strolled around. Despite everyone wearing brightly coloured and boldly patterned African garb (though I fear there may have been other cultures mixed in there), there was of course only one black face to be seen on a stage of over 100 people, which gave everything a rather surreal look that didn't seem to match to any recognisable culture. Took me a while to realise that that was why it looked so weird.

The music of Act III is mostly on the less inspired side, notably excepting a surprising dance for girl peasants in the middle which is exquisitely scored and has a very beautiful melody. As Dido, Eva-Maria Westbroek is a much more glamorous voice than Antonacci, but she seemed lost as Didon dramatically. Didon is the "people's princess", but for McVicar that means touching the crowd like a pop musician, hollywood smiles, and hugging children. There's not one hint of nobility in this characterisation of Dido (I place the blame at McVicar's feet), and it's not until her Act 5 monologue that a compelling three dimensional character emerges. She sings very well though, best of all in this monologue, unleashing a time stopping pianissimo on the final note. I wasn't all that moved however. For me there's a slight loss of lustre compared to a few years ago and I hear the beginning of spreading on her top notes. Still this is very nice singing.

Little happens in Act IV, but it's a string of pure delights musically. First the Hunt and Storm Ballet which is simply one of the best pieces of ballet music between Rameau and Tchaikovsky. Then Narbal's aria, another wonderful ballet sequence, Iopas' aria, Aeneas' tale and then to even more wonderful things: the ravishingly beautiful septet which is probably the most beautiful number in the whole opera, and then the almost as lovely but slightly prolix duet for the lovers. This is basically number opera, in stark contrast to some of the earlier acts which seems to aiming at somewhat larger dramatic units and scenas. This wild eclecticism of style is one of the reasons why Les Troyens remains problematic, but it also where many of its charms lie.

As a side note, the dancers all had modern hair, with a couple of the men having cool hipster haircuts. This sort of thing maddens me - when it just clearly hasn't been thought about. Antonacci had contemporary hair too, possibly excusable because she's a wild woman/prophetess, so we'll forgive that, but the dancers really annoyed me. Also, dancers make the worst actors ever - they are trained to always extend to the maximum, expand gestures to exaggeration, and the result is pure irritation and unbelievability. Maybe I'm the only one who thinks this.

Act V revealed Bryan Hymel to be perhaps the star of the show as Aeneas. (Maybe?) He has a bad rep in London after singing a Don Jose a few years back that seems to have been universally slated. He was magnificent however in the ROH Rusalka earlier this year, and he is again very good here. Stepping into Kaufmann's shoe's is never going to be an easy task, but Hymel is so different and so excellent that I only occasionally got pangs of regret about Kaufmann's absence. Enée is a famously ungrateful role in that it is a shockingly difficult sing, but has few glory moments compared to the women in this opera. But Hymel really made something of it here, never sounding overtaxed, and his top notes are a treat. Really magnificent singing this, and he's only 33 so he's only going to get better. Maybe I am overstating things, but he's definitely someone I'll be watching from now on.

There's way too much to mention in this production to go into more than cursory detail, but overall the good significantly outweighs the bad - definitely try and see it, if only for the reason that its so rarely done, and also to see that beautiful horse apart from anything! It's not a stunning evening of drama and it only just about coheres, but again like the score, this production presents a series of wonderful scenes which are hugely enjoyable taken on their own.

Antonio Pappano is in the pit with the ROH orchestra and he clearly believes in the score passionately. Plenty of wonderful moments and as always he's just so good at supporting the singers. The ROH Chorus were on fine form too. Too tired to write any more now!

This is a four way co production between the ROH, Vienna State Opera, La Scala and San Francisco opera, so it is definitionally coming to an opera house near you soon.

Sunday 24 June 2012

Gianandrea Noseda and LSO with Angela Denoke


I love this music and chose to go to this concert before I had heard Denoke in Salome. I'm amazed she still gets hired to do stuff. She can just about sing Marie, but there's no aspect of her voice that the decline hasn't touched. Isolde would be a disaster at this stage. Very sad as her acting in Salome was so good - her stage presence in opera is remarkable (even if here on the concert platform she looked ultra tense and awkward).

Still, those Berg excerpts just fill me with pure rapture whenever I hear 'em, so was worth the risk. Also we heard a bonkers version of Beethoven 5 which other people loved, me not so much, but was cool to witness, I guess. I reviewed it for Bachtrack:

Wednesday 6 June 2012

La Cenerentola at Glyndebourne


Glyndebourne's La Cenerentola is so vanilla that it almost hurts. The final scene is absolutely magnificently simple (Cenerentola sings her monologue facing the audience bathed in light, in a gold dress. What could be better!?) but the rest is just plain. It's regency costumes and cartoonishly plain period sets all the way (by Moritz Junge and Hildegard Bechtler respectively). No attempt at interpretation is made, nothing about what the opera might mean, we're just presented the story as it is - which some people will breathe a sigh of relief to, but those with more searching minds will feel slightly exasperated as the plot is so thin.

La Cenerentola has two problems as far as I'm concerned. The first is that there is plot, but no drama. Things happen in an order, but there's really very little tension or conflict - the step sisters and father aren't that evil, Cinderella and the prince fall in love within 20 minutes of the opera's start, and we are repeatedly told in the first scene that her life is going to change dramatically. We all know what happens in the story of Cinderella, but so do we know in La Traviata or Salome - that doesn't mean we don't get drawn into the plot each time (ideally speaking of course).

The second is that the score doesn't quite offer the cornucopia of delights that the very best Rossini operas offer, where number after number delights and glistens. This brilliance can save the thinnest plot (Armida and especially Viaggio a Reims), but Cenerentola doesn't get enough chances to really sing until the end, where she should obviously be the musical centre of the work. There is of course much to love for admirers and lovers of Rossini's music such as myself - the overture, the lovely little tune that Cinderella keeps humming, the glittering ensembles and the amazing finale.

There are other challenges to staging this opera too. So much of the text is internal monologue/asides. Peter Hall has every single one of these addressed directly at the audience, so the fourth wall is constantly broken. The ensembles all end up as dreamy moments of stasis where the characters go out of character and weave around each other in surprise or shock or confusion as the situation requires. It's a solution, but it does get a little tired, and means that the characters just fail to have any inner life whatsoever. Absolutely no explanation or exploration is offered of the interesting character of Alidoro, the fairy god mother figure in this opera. It's not bad, and just about maintains interest, but surely we can expect a little more?

I first heard Elizabeth DeShong in the ENO's Lucrezia Borgia last season in the role of Orsini and was blown away by the richness and evenness of the voice. This performance only confirmed my expectations, and expanded my admiration as she is very adept at the coloratura too. The problem is, that the voice is so beefy at the bottom, so much gorgeous chest register singing, that she never for one second sounds like a victim that say Von Stade could so movingly affect. The top has that shiny fullness that is usually the reserve of  true altos... I love this voice! Dramatically she was best in the final scene, where despite her small stature, had real poise and presence as a noble figure - more roles like this please.

The rest of the cast were very good too. Taylor Stayton as Prince Ramiro is one of the few tenors who can actually sing the coloratura properly, and his small sweet voice never outstayed its welcome. Umberto Chiummo was a slightly camp (shades of Dale Winton) but equally well sung Don Magnifico, again a luxury to hear such clean coloratura in a baritone, though he doesn't quite have the low notes for this role. Elena Xanthoudakis made a magnetically horrible Clorinda and sang her small part well. The rest of the cast I had no complaints about either (how unusual!)

James Gaffigen conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra expertly - this was excellent Rossinian style, beautifully coloured string playing, all as clean and accurate as Rossini needs to be to shine.

Salome at the Royal Opera House


This is the third outing of Dave McVicar's Salome and still Covent Garden haven't found a Salome to do it justice.

McVicar's production updates the piece to the 1930s (in Germany?), in the decadent house of a dignitary who is throwing a dinner party "upstairs" in a sort of Downton Abbey set up (I'm sort of joking, but only sort of). The "downstairs" is where the opera takes place, and it's a squalid, bare bulbed cavern, all tiled with art deco designs. Dotted around are soldiers, damaged young women in various states of undress, jittery cleaners, and other undesirables: damaged goods. This is a bit of a McVicar trope to have extra-itis - to set the scene, but the opera in a social context, etc. etc. As usual, it is only sometimes successful - often its a bit distracting, and isn't quite trusting enough of the audience's imaginations - one often feels that more could be said with less. With one major exception the story remains exactly the same - completely in line with virtually all McVicar productions, he's not interested in a radical reinterpretation of the composer's central idea of the plot, just a very detailed interpretation of that vision. Angela Denoke's acting particularly is superbly detailed and directed and she stalks around with great poise, able to strike those characteristic '30s poses with lazy sexual charisma. She doesn't quite seem frenzied enough in the climaxes though, resorting to a sort of 6 year old's tantrum of shaking her arms with rage, and in the final scene seems both dejected and gloating, rather than ecstatic and exalting - a greater "journey" for the character would have made the drama live more. And this opera really needs it - the direction of Salome really needs to hold us through the moments of crudity and dross in the score, the dull patches (eg, the Jew's chorus, the terrible Nazarine duet, and set pieces of this ilk), the slag that muddies the stretches of genius.

In this production, it is a bit of a mystery what appeal Jochanaan holds for Salome - he's filthy and angry as usual, but here he doesn't seem to posses the purity and irreducible spirituality that is the hook that draws Salome and fires her obsession. Visual and dramatic relief from the single set comes in the productions finest moment, a dream/historic sequence during the Dance of the Seven Veils, here a row of seven doors that show how Salome's gradually acquiesces to Herod's will, or rather manipulates him slowly into giving her what she wants. Naturally this ends with sex. Most moving and stirring are her frantic attempts to cleanse herself as she reconciles herself to what she has to do in order to get what she wants. It's not always exactly perfectly clear (I think a lot of people didn't fathom it, and just think its meant to show child abuse), but somehow it doesn't matter I think, subliminally its significance registers, and prepares us for the final scenes (as I said, in the event slightly mishandled.)

As already mentioned, Angela Denoke acts this part brilliantly, but unfortunately vocally she really doesn't come up to scratch. The voice is just about big enough to take on the role, but there's the sense that she's only just holding on all the way - there's not just a jaw shake, the entire aperture of the mouth vibrates giving a horrible wobble on top. In fact there's no natural vibrato left on top - she'll just try and squeeze out the right note as a pure tone and let the wobble do its thing. And this part is so high lying (whilst also requiring a bottom F#/Gb) that this really is a big problem in the role. It's also why so many sopranos come to grief in it - its a dramatic soprano role, but with the tessitura of a lyric one. Not many sopranos can do it full justice. She was also consistently quite flat. There was no sense of line, disastrous in Strauss' cantilenas and the most revealing moment as why this was came where she sang "Wohl, ich werde ihn jetzt küssen!" in the final scene which is all sung on the same note - between every note there was a complete relaxation of the chords and she had to scoop back up to the same note each time.

Egils Silins was a bit of a dry voiced Jochanaan, but certainly had the power. Sometimes the note was a little difficult to distinguish from just pure bellowing, but there's no wobble at least. Best vocally of the major quartet of characters was Stig Anderson as Herod who memorably created this character and matched the extremely demanding vocal demands of what is after all a character tenor role. Dramatically I wish he had let some of the quieter moments register a bit more by slowing down, though this may have been the conducting too. Rosalind Plowright has a huge voice, but unfortunately its only the huge climactic notes that come out in a major way, though she makes a very good Herodias, which is one of those roles that divas ease into retirement with.

Most of the small roles were very nicely taken. Peter Bronder's first Jew was extraordinary - a tone that could cut through steel, though its also quite an unpleasant sound too. Andrew Greenam has a very pleasingly rounded tone as First Nazarene too.

I had mixed feelings about what was happening in the pit. So often, the seething, teeming details of Strauss' score didn't come across at all and we got a rather indistinct mushy mess instead - this score thrives on clarity and gut busting power in equal measure, but each needs to be in its proper place, and this time we only got the latter in the major moments of the score. Perhaps it was where I was sitting or the ROH acoustics? But I actually saw two performances (one in the Amphi, and one at the back of the stalls) and it was largely the same. Anyway, moments of impact, but overall not a great performance. Who's the best Salome of the moment? Stemme?

Monday 4 June 2012

The Cunning Little Vixen at Glyndebourne


Janacek is very close to my heart, and there is absolutely no question for me that his operatic output is one of the finest contributions to the stage, musically and dramatically of any composer. While he does have a major following, it is likely that he will never be truly popular or a sure box office draw - his idiom is too gnarled and personal, too painful, too strange; the subjects are too odd, too unsentimental, too close to the bone; the main roles are the opposite of traditional operatic fair, and don't ever give an opportunity for vocal display or show boating and so the really major singers of each generation will only occasionally sing them. They also seem to present difficulties in staging for many directors because they're so compressed, so detailed and layered (though to me these things seem like gifts to an opera director.) Are they too real?

But what a treasure trove of riches they present, what a cabinet of curiosities, beauties, what an unfathomable range of expression and mood! Each one is so unlike the others as well in mood and feel, though Janacek's radiant voice and highly personal means of making music always shine through.

The Cunning Little Vixen is seen by many as a good entry point, though it's not without its difficulties. The lack of espressivo, eschewal of all operatic convention, and humorous, elliptical libretto may shock the unsuspecting customer. "What's going on here?" The wilful resistance to give the audience what it wants and expects, a Tosca's pain, a Butterfly's heartache, an Othello's jealousy, a Salome's depravity etc. etc. can seem to the Janacek neophyte like a stubborn refusal to bestow pleasure, like it's all going his way, and he's not holding up his end of the bargain. But familiarity with the idiom, his other music, and indeed each individual opera, reveals that he's just doing his own thing, in his own way, and that they have just as much to offer the sensitive, open minded listener as anything in the standard operatic repertoire.

Though I wasn't very keen on this production, the music making more than made up for it, and I am very very glad to have gone.

Melly Still returns to Glyndebourne after having made her opera directing debut in 2009 with Rusalka that other supreme Czech opera rooted in nature and the Bohemian forest (technically Janacek's forest is Moravian.) A few of the same problems that plagued the Dvorak are also problems here. The set is consistently underlit by Paule Constable (also the lighting designer on Rusalka), and though so often she's aiming for dusky glimmer and evening warmth the result it rarely comes off. More annoying is again the reluctance by Still to explore the psychological underpinnings of the work, or what it might mean. Like in Rusalka, any excuse to add a humorous sex scene is pounced upon by Still, but why is there here so little characterisation or differentiation between the characters? Why so little detail in the interactions?

The basic plot concerning the Vixen is well handled, and her capture, escape, courtship and death are all clearly delineated, and sometimes touchingly presented. There's often a lot of humour, and Still really chooses to play the piece for laughs. This is fine as much of the libretto is very funny, but the problem is that this is where her approach ends. The human scenes are muddled and confusing - for those not familiar with the opera/score/libretto (which is surely the majority of the audience), it's often extremely difficult to tell who is being addressed, and how the characters relate to each other. The parallel between the silent Teryncka and the Vixen is made obvious early on, but then its later significance barely registers. As a result the dramatic and emotional purpose of the human scenes becomes nebulous and they only seem in vague relation to the main thread of the opera, beyond some vague talk about young love and yearning for the past.

The human and animal world are also poorly distinguished. The animals are invariably dressed as humans (costumes by Dinah Collin), and usually it is very hard to tell which animal they are until the libretto tells us. The foxes at least are easy: they are dressed as orange clothed gypsies, with ginger hair and fox tails that they carry around in their hands. The tails are sometimes used to expressive effect, but too often seems to hamper a scene as the actors negotiate these clumsy implements. Why not just have them attached but with handles?

The chickens become tottering, wigged, corseted sex workers, though the cockerel is strangely drab and unexciting looking, especially as Still seems to suggest he is only a symbol of proud male fertility (he has a big red penis and balls permanently attached to his hands). There is simply almost nothing animal-like in the way these actors move, behave or look, except that occasionally they'll impulsively try and shag each other. The woodpecker is a bearded lady with a hammer, frogs are people with nets (and eyes on their hands a la Pan's Labyrinth), dragonflies are men in dresses, sparrows become people with blue sparkly tops, flowers in their hair and sticks, etc. etc. Although I think this lack of precision and contrast ruins certain symmetries and beauties in the opera, the idea of having the animals as humans could be be interesting if there was some sort of reasoning behind it, or new truth revealed by it. But there's no evidence to suggest that Still really means anything by this directorial decision - the animals really are meant to be thought of as animals, and nothing more or less.

This score is the most delicate, refined, crystalline and bejewelled of all of Janacek's operas, though of course it still has the urgency, rawness and immediacy that are the hallmarks of his music. Rawness is not crudity though, a distinction not reflected in the set design (Tom Pye). The main set item is a large tree made of pieces of square cut timber and perspex sheets with leaves and flowers, and in the background a steep cartoony path winds up a slope. Occasionally nice perspective effects are made possible by this, and the path also becomes the fox/badger hole a couple of times.  Unfortunately the extreme crudity of the finish doesn't at all square with the gossamer detail and broad sweeping grandeur of the most beautiful parts of the score, nor the snappy incisiveness of its more insouciant portions. The seasons change, but again that's where the idea stops.

Perhaps the biggest casualty is the last scene which is meant to be an awesome affirmation of the power and majesty of nature, but the Forester nostalgic reminiscences and then startled moment of soaring elation are here only communicated by the overwhelming beauty and surge of the music - on stage, singer Sergei Lieferkus just watches the animals playing around him, smiles, then lies on the floor.

As already mentioned, Janacek rarely attracts star singers (excepting perhaps his earliest masterpiece, Jenufa) because it's emphatically not about divadom or showy vocalising (the main character of Makropulos Case, notwithstanding). Lucy Crowe's role of Vixen Sharp Ears is by far the opera's biggest role, and she sings and acts it very nicely. There a touch of hoarseness in the climaxes which is not at all inappropriate for the role, and the rest is very nicely pointed. Sergei's Leiferkus' Forester didn't register as the major character he was meant to be - it's a fine voice and he can sing the notes, but more subtle acting and beautiful singing would have been welcome in this part. Emma Bell's Fox and Lucie Špičková's Dog were also good; Everyone else did the music justice, whilst never offering anything truly memorable. The chief glories were emanating from the pit.

Vladimir Jurowski lead the London Philharmonic orchestra in an incandescent performance, one of the finest pieces of Janacek conducting I've ever heard. During his life, Mackerras essentially owned this repertoire, but since his sad departure the field has been opened to conductors who really understand this music to pick up the mantle and continue bringing it to the public with the highest possible standards. The rhythmic and timbral precision made one hear this score afresh, and Jurowski really let it soar in the brief moments that Janacek allows it. Above all, the extraordinary luminosity, warmth and generosity of this music came across with huge force, and one hopes (nay, prays) that Jurowski will continue to conduct Janacek's scores in the future. Does his last season as musical director of Glyndebourne next year preclude his conducting in future seasons? Again, one hopes not.