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Wednesday 31 October 2012

Die Walküre at the Royal Opera House


Due to extreme busyness I am really behind with reviews - but I'll write about this Walkure for completeness sake. This was the last opera of Keith Warner's Ring that I saw, and I have to say that of the four operas, I found this staging the most disappointing. In theory, Walkure should be the easiest to stage - fewer special effects than the others, the emotional drama is the most direct and immediate, the music is consistently thrilling - all in all the most obviously likeable of the Ring operas. So what went wrong?

This production is relentlessly dark, even more so than Warner's other instalments and the poor lighting made it very dull visually I thought. The subtlety is all in the characterisation and there were many wonderful moments. Bryn Terfel's Wotan was involved in the lion's share of these, and though I had seen him do some wonderful work in the dire Met production broadcasts, it was in this production with this director that he first essayed the role, and surely established his interpretation. (He also said in a recent interview that he preferred working in the ROH production to the Met one because here he was given direction, and at the Met everyone was left to their own devices). The way he cradled Siegmund's head after his son's fatal battle was exceptionally moving, and his two big scenes with Brunnhilde also provided a brilliant wealth of psychological and emotional riches. When Brunnhilde asks him what is wrong, he draws himself up, holds her face in his handswith a fearful intensity, but then looks away, lost inconsolable - he cannot face up to the reality, and Brunnhilde's face itself is a reminder of his failings. Later, before he lays his daughter on the rock, there is a wonderful intimacy to their final moments together. Wotan marches off into the uncertain future in another with a resignation and sadness that is palpable: simple things that have a huge effect. I also really liked the way that Brunnhilde bounded off stage after her first entry, and almost runs into the imperious Fricka, which reveals an interraction between them which is only implicit and in the "background" of the libretto. (Fricka doesn't like Brunnhilde, but she does respect her, even although they are very different women.)

There is clumsyness too however, and it's not infrequent - when Wotan actually puts Brunnhilde into her sleep, making her a woman, it is done behind a screen, just as at the end of Siegfried when the eponymous hero wakes her up. This emotional and dramatic climax, the midpoint of the Ring, the inexorable result of all the events already witnessed, and with consequences for every subsequent event, is too important to get wrong like this. What was Warner thinking? The ride of Valkyries we see them all onstage at the beginning, they perform some resurrection ceremony (with a horribly naff projection) then run offstage, then arrive onstage again one by one, greeting each other. The hell? In Act 1, Hunding's house and the place where Fricka and Wotan meet occur on virtually identical sets - the tables and chairs and chaise longue are the same, and in both, husband and wife argue across a table. Is Warner suggesting that their fight is fundamentally the same? Or just that both marriages are unhappy? Either way, neither is particularly illuminating or insightful. Why also does it take Brunnhilde five minutes to cross the stage to reach Siegmund? I understand that there might be a hesitancy, but that surely needs to expressed in body language as well as the speed of approach!

As well as his superb acting, Bryn was vocally on top form, by far the best of his three portrayals in the Ring operas. Although the Walkure Wotan seems superficially to be the most taxing in terms of length and intensity it fits Terfel like a glove, and the range of vocal and textual nuance he brought to it, as well as his impressively stentorian climaxes, were a real treat. Timbrally he seemed just right here too - I had complained of him sounding overly baritonal and metallic in Siegfried, which is a lower and much louder part, especially in Act 3, as the intervening 12 years meant Wagner's orchestration had thickened due to his discoveries in Tristan and Mesitersinger. The Walkure Wotan might turn out to be Terfel's finest Wagner role, and I would travel to see it again.

Fricka can either be played as a woman wronged by Wotan's philandering, or as a force of reason and logic. I prefer the latter as it's more revealing of the themes of the Ring, and allows for a more interesting portrayal - not least because the music tells us that she is more than just the nag that she is commonly described as. Somehow Connolly had it both ways, producing a rounded portrait, though I have to say, she really is at least one size category too small vocally to do this small but majestic role full justice. When not hard pressed by the dramatic writing, her phrasing was very beautiful indeed, but Fricka is meant to be a force of nature capable of standing up to Wotan, King of the gods, and I just wasn't quite convinced. Acting wise she was excellent though.

Eva Maria Westbrook's career is currently going from strength to strength, singing the biggest roles in many big houses. ROH audiences seem to love her but I have to say that I think she is already past her prime - though she remains very much in control of her voice, the vibrato and basic sound has become unattractive and rather hard in the past few years. Interpretively I also find her bland, with rather little variation in approach to any role that she sings and too little attention to textual subtleties. This is a very critical appraisal, but I always feel I should be enjoying her performances more than I actually do - the good things are that she's mostly very committed on stage, and can sing every note that she is supposed to sing. There was one moment of pure electricity: as she ecstatically thanks Brunnhilde at the beginning of Act 3 ("O hehrstes Wunder!") she revealed more mettle and heft than I thought she could muster, and with a thrilling sheen in the sound. She is scheduled to do Isolde in Bayreuth in a few seasons time, and though I've never seen her as a hoch dramatisch soprano, this one moment may point the way to what she might be capable of.

Simon O'Neill started out as an OK Siegmund though hardly of the first rank - his top is famously pinched and strident, but this role lies rather low in the tenor range so we didn't get to see much of this this time. Sadly the bottom is underpowered, and by the end of Act I he was barely projecting above the orchestra. He wasn't announced as ill, but he wasn't a match for his Sieglinde.

John Tomlinson sang a good Hunding, sounding more comfortable vocally than with his superb Hagen, though Hunding is of course a far less interesting character, and doesn't allow for the wonderful wealth of characterisation that Tomlinson imbued Hagen with. There was a particularly lovely moment when Wotan kills Hunding and there was a (perhaps frivolous to mention) sense of some sort of transferral of power between Tomlinson and Terfel, surely Britain's next great Wotan.

The Valkyries made a magnificent noise, each clearly trying to outdo the others with volume, excitement and energy, which made for a thrilling Act 3 opening. Unfortunately Susan Bullock seemed to be struggling even more here than in the other operas, and didn't once match transcend her vocal failings to produce the intensity that she had mustered in Gotterdammerung.

I was very disappointed by Pappano's contribution in the pit - he resigned himself to the role of an accompanist, only coming fully alive in Act 3, but it was too late - Act 1 and 2 had given us too little to care about musically - too little was at stake. The orchestra, which had been sounding so magnificent in Siegfried and Gotterdammerung sounded tired and bored, with truly awful playing from the brass section, particularly principal trumpet. As I say I can only imagine that it was fatigue as they were sounding so great in the previous cycle, but this was a very disappointing showing and a real embarrassment for what is supposedly one of the finest opera house orchestras in the world.

Saturday 13 October 2012

The Magic Flute at the ENO


Swayed by the murmurs about its "classic" status, I went to ENO's Magic Flute, worried that I might miss its final outing. Obviously nostalgia has tinted the spectacles of the chorus of sighing admirers, as Hytner's production is about as literal and vanilla (read: plain) as you can get. Maybe all those aeons ago when Noah was loading the Papagenos onto the arc, this may have been original and illuminating as a take on Mozart's most elusive opera, but it never once seeks to interpret what the piece might mean beyond the most general and literal "light and dark" metaphors. True to its roots in Singspiel, Die Zauberflote is an evening of pure entertainment dressed up in dubious philosophical garb: whatever the higher intention of the work's creators, the plot and Schikaneder's libretto are very, very silly, and that Mozart responds to it with music of such noble warmth, charm and beauty is a difficult thing to reconcile artistically. But there has to be an attempt!

In this production (perhaps only this revival?) there is clumsiness everywhere: the single set creaks and squeals as it shifts; characters say farewell and then exit via the same door; they gain, lose, and regain items of costume without reasonable explanation; sound effects regularly interfere with the music and sound shoddy and unconvincing. The acting would seem crass and hammy if witnessed in a Christmas panto, with the most exaggerated and laboured use of silly voices and accents, ridiculously clichéd delivery of serious lines and ceaselessly bad comedic timing such that real sentiment and believable characterisation are studiously (and successfully) avoided.

Vocally at least, things were much better. Most treasurable is Elena Xanthoudakis whose ultra shiny and youthfully pure soprano is absolutely ideal for Pamina. She sounded best when she let herself go a bit volume wise, easily filling the Coliseum's dry acoustics with silvery ribbons of legato. Duncan Rock was an impressive Papageno, with his beefy, rich baritone ringing out clearly if not always subtly, though he was guilty of the biggest excesses acting wise. I often found myself cringing at his delivery of the spoken dialogue. Robert Lloyd's voice is still impressively massive and rich and deep (I can't quite believe that he's sounding this good at 72!) but it has crept almost entirely into his nose. (My companion quipped: Is there actually any sound coming out of his mouth?). Kathryn Lewek as The Queen of the Night sounded very beautiful in her Act I aria, though the voice is very much on the small side for this role. Unfortunately she was slightly out of tune in the iconic high flying passages of Der Holle Rache, with unsupported, thin high notes. Roland Wood revealed a wonderful bass-baritone in the small role of the Speaker - let's get him back soon please! Shawn Mathey's Tamino was the cast's weakest link, sounding a little hoarse and with appallingly wooden acting.

In the opening minutes of the overture I thought we were in for a very special night from the pit as conductor Nicholas Collon seemed to be getting a very lovely and clean, though warm HIP sound out of the ENO orchestra. Unfortunately it remained merely pleasant, lacking sufficient contrast in dynamics or colour, and not enough body in the sound to really support the singers. The biggest casualty was Pamina's Ach, ich fuhl's which was played secco and as a result completely failed to move. A more fundamental problem was the very frequent coordination issues between the pit and stage with singers regularly getting ahead of the orchestra. A little disappointing and I'm mystified by the misty-eyed reverence that this production inspires!

Friday 12 October 2012

Götterdämmerung at the Royal Opera House


And so, on to the conclusion of Wagner's colossal cycle, perhaps the most daunting to approach for directors and opera goers and surely for Wagner himself who had to logically and coherently conclude the massive musico-dramatic construct that he had set in motion. The stakes are stupendously high: he must succeed in order to vindicate his project and vision, rout the suspicion that what he is trying to achieve is too big, too grand, that he has gone too far beyond what music can reasonably express, prove that all this elevated talk of sublimity is not just posturing and an act of supreme self aggrandisement and ego. That he is not found wanting in this task is almost unimaginable, but there it is before us, unmistakable in its greatness; proclaiming itself clearly and unarguably as one of the greatest pieces of art that has ever been attempted.

The Prologue started promisingly, the ancient Norns practising extispicy on themselves, pulling the strands of fate from their own bowels. Their call to Erda seemed even more desperate and desolate than usual, as in this staging Wotan kills Erda in Seigfried. Unfortunately, Brunnhilde and Siegfried again failed to register properly in terms of their devotional, almost obsessional passion towards one another. Part of the problem was surely Vinke's lack of dramatic commitment (here no longer an interesting "take", but a real impediment to the story telling), but the staging also failed to convey any intimacy between the two. This has major repercussions later in the opera, because it makes Brunnhilde's wrath and supreme heart break hard to make sense of. With regard to the relationship, never was the simple phrase "Show, don't tell" more apposite. That phrase is surely the touchstone of any truly moving dramatic scene or piece of writing, and I'm always amazed at how callously it is ignored in much opera direction.

Once again what really did work were the more domestic scenes - Hagen's encouragement of Gutrune and Gunther worked brilliantly in the coldly palatial setting of Act 1. Hagen's debonair appearance and elegant manner makes him an easy charmer, but he then absent mindedly proceeds to strangle Gutrune as he muses about Brunnhilde downfall - these unexpected moments were disturbing and horrifying: we see that Hagen is just a shell of normalcy about a core of pure emptyness and loathing. He is an archetypal psychopath - that is he is exceptionally intelligent and socially adept, able to learn effective patterns of social interaction, but in reality completely devoid of feeling and empathy. He cannot feel. John Tomlinson understands the psychology of this role better than anyone, and gave a truly outstanding portrayal of this part that it would be difficult to imagine being bettered dramatically. Vocally he took a while to warm up (for the first ten minutes I was worried that the voice was completely gone), and although he struggles greatly with the top, the middle is still focussed and stentorian, and just like his acting, he makes every vocal gesture count and add to the characterisation. Exceptional stuff.

In this scene, the back wall is a huge set of windows hinged in two places such that at the crucial moment they can form a sort of box, a large version of the Tarnhelm (which is a mirrored cube in this production). The scene where Siegfried (transformed via the Tarnhelm into an image of Gunther) tries to seduce Brunnhilde happens inside a larger version of the helmet, by this point in the cycle a symbol not just of transformation, but deception. In the previous scene, director Keith Warner also cleverly reflects what is happening in the score as Siegfried drinks the love potion - Hagen holds the Tarnhelm, whose motive is going on in the orchestra, again with its new connotation of deception. For Wagner mavens who already know the score inside out and blow by blow, it might be too much, but for the rest of us, it was a telling visual and dramatic clue to the aural mechanics.

The quartet in Act 2 was a particular low point staging wise - it all seemed vaguely ludicrous, and the sense of burgeoning catastrophe with the myriad repercussions at every level of the plot seemed far away. Gradually it dawns on one that this is a fairly small scale reading of the Ring, one that seems to be basically about normal people in extreme situations, and while it entertains, never bores, and sometimes moves, the massive architectonics of the plot, drama and philosophical underpinnings often feel undernourished. Thankfully Keith Warner never does anything to abuse or undermine Wagner's fundamental conception, though occasionally things become a little muddled, and by the end, the strands of the plot seem not quite wound up clearly enough. At the same time, he doesn't get in the way: the Immolation scene made its colossal impact and I left the theatre profoundly moved. Though I loved the ride, in the end this production seemed like it told the right story, but at the wrong scale.

As ever, ultimately it was the music made the thing live. Pappano is perhaps not the most natural Wagner conductor, and though singers and orchestra were wonderfully rehearsed, some may have wished that his sensitive shepherding of the singers had been sacrificed occasionally for the larger musical picture. That said, he got everyone involved making a magnificent sound, and there were more than occasional moments of transcendent beauty. I have to say that I have left this Ring cycle (my first live in the theatre, and with Walkure still to go) considering myself a Wagnerian, rather than just a staunch admirer of Wagner as I had previously seen myself - I now fully understand and am completely convinced of the appeal and for the first time in a Wagner opera never felt that time was moving slowly for a single second. I could happily do another cycle in this run, but sadly won't have the time.

Susan Bullock has consistently been referred to as the weak link in this Ring cast, and even though I am hyper critical about voices, I have to say I completely forgave her all her vocal shortcomings by the end, not least because of her wonderful performance of the Immolation scene. Physically, she hardly looks like a statueque Nordic goddess, and vocally, the upper reaches of her voice are in tatters, the rest only just on the edge of acceptable - but still, in that moment, on that stage, she was giving everything that she had, and simply communicating with an extraordinary intensity and level of commitment that went way beyond what one usually witnesses in the opera house. For me she redeemed herself, and I'm not merely taking the will for the deed - there was the strong feeling that something special was occurring for her. I would even call this performance a success. I'm not sure how many will agree with me.

At the other end of the spectrum, when Gutrune started singing, I was shocked to hear a perfect Strauss soprano voice emerge - a soprano of radiant, shimmering beauty, with the sort of technique that is so solid that it conceals itself such that the voice has the added attraction of seeming effortless. It is so rare to hear singing like this in Wagner these days, where it would not have been uncommon 50 years ago. Unbeknownst to me, this was Rachel Willis-Sorensen, who I already very much admired as the Countess in Figaro last February, and I fell in love with her voice again here before realising who she was. The legato is seamless, the timbre juicy though always silvery, with a rich chest register, and size wise she is surely a lyric spinto. She would be absolutely ideal as Arabella, the Capriccio Countess, the Marschallin and Ariadne, and also as Elsa or Elisabeth, and I really would travel some distance to see her in any of these roles. Amazingly she's only 28, which partially makes me worried that she is singing Wagner at this age, but someone who is this technically sorted probably knows what they are doing in that respect too. It's not just the technique and sound that are beautiful though - she is able to use the technique to great expressive effect. I'm a real fan already. Check out the clips on her website:

In general the small parts were all very well taken actually - the three Norns revealed three very diffierent young dramatic voices, all three with great potential. Maria Radner who had sung Erda on previous nights, seemed much more comfortable here, and didn't once seem underpowered either - it's a very lovely true contralto voice. Carin Cargill is similarly beautifully timbre-wise and possibly even more even and controlled technically - certainly there is greater ease in higher registers and a feeling of greater flexibility. Elisabeth Meister has a very large top and is wilder than either of these two, but there is something quite viscerally exciting about the sound. A pleasure to hear all three.

As Gunther, Peter Coleman-Wright was having a terrible night. The voice had no vibrancy, and though occasionally at the beginning of a phrase it seemed like some body was returning to the sound, he didn't manage to convincingly sing a single line all evening. Quite shockingly bad considering the stage he was standing on, but I guess it's hard to sack people these days. Whether he was having an off night, or whether the voice is now entirely wrecked remains to be seen, but it was sad to witness.

Waltraute's scene, like Fricka's in Walkure, is an absolute gift to a talented singer, and a perfect opportunity to upstage any and all comers with music of wonderful sweep and contour, not to mention dramatic impact. Mihoko Fujimura delivered some very powerful and precise singing, the lower half of her voice possessing the most wonderfully richly colour. In some ways she's close to ideal, though I unfairly, I had in my memory Waltraud Meier's Waltraute who is obviously superlative, so I wasn't as overwhelmed with Fujimura as some other seemed to be. Still she was very impressive.

Die Walkure remains as a treat for next week, and among other things I really cannot wait to see Sarah Connolly as Fricka. It's the most generous and likable of the Ring operas and the one that gives me most pleasure in isolation from the others. As I say, I would happily watch the entire cycle again, but sadly won't find the time. What a wonderful experience it has been.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Siegfried at the ROH


I have tickets to all the Ring operas! Annoyingly I'm seeing them out of order (Rheingold, Siegfried, Gotterdammerung, Walkure), so it will be difficult to appraise the cycle properly as a piece of story telling, but better this than nothing!

On the whole I really enjoyed Siegfried. I usually find that Act I drags until the forging song, because up until then it might uncharitably be described as an argument between a malevolent midget and an angry simpleton, but here I was completely captivated throughout, both by the dramatics and the music. In the opening minutes of the opera we are shown chronological slices of Siegfried's youth from pram to adolescence with Mime's increasingly desperate attempts to forge him a sword. Gerhard Siegel offers a Mime that combines his humorous patheticness with a genuine pathos and sadness. He is disturbing not because he is evil, but because his normality is just a shell: he has many of the familiar drives that we have, but at his core there is a vacuum, where something very fundamental is missing (In this he is a much like Hagen). There is no doubt, for instance, that his scheming for the ring is only half the story - there is a genuine desire towards parenthood, even if he can only be a terrible parent. We question what Mime's own awful upbringing might have been like with Alberich, and what psychological scars is he trying to heal with his "own" son. Siegel put this all across in a rather understated way and vocally his truly perfect diction, power and sensitivity are a model for the other singers.

Siegfried's own inarticulate longing for his mother are ravishingly captured in the music of Act II, and one wonders even whether there is not some erotic tension present in the music as well, what with his already sexually confused heredity, and him sharing direct lineage with Brunnhilde in the form of Wotan; indeed he confuses her for his mother in Act III. (As an aside, because of the incestuous genetics, both Brunnhilde and Siegfried have half of Wotan's genes. Second aside: It has been noted by feminist writers that the physical between a mother and her child is an erotic one, centred on the breast, and that intense pleasure is often derived from both parties.) Staging wise, this bit is the best thing about Act II: Siegfried disappears down a hole in the middle of the stage, the roof of which then rises to reveal a star lit sky and green paddock: apart from anything it's just a rather beautiful, if typically quirky image. I heard grumbles in the interval about the deer on wheels that appear, but Keith Warner's slightly light hearted aesthetic is very firmly established by this point, so I didn't find it jarring. The difficult to stage dragon scene is acceptably presented - the dragon head is quite scary, and moves with a threatening air, though the fight is rather perfunctory as usual, and though Siegfried is meant to see the whole thing as a sort of joke, at one point he just runs round the stage to make the scene last longer it seems, which is clumsy and undramatic.

Stefan Vinke's Siegfried is a very different matter from Siegel's articulate, needy Mime - Vinke never once genuinely connects with another person on stage, and although I don't think this is an intentional acting choice, it works as an interpretation: the only human contact that Siegfried has had has been from his emotional cripple of a parent, and so he would clearly be a rather underdeveloped or even damaged young man, incapable of the normal range of human emotions. He feels closer to the animals he sees, and what saves him is his radiant energy, love of freedom and instinctive feeling that Mime's actions are wrong. I like this almost autistic interpretation - but if this was the intention it could have been more precise, definite and troubled. Vocally it's not exactly the most exciting voice, but this is an impossible role, and he sings all the notes, largely in tune, and can even sing quietly when needed. He was clearly saving himself for the final duet in which he truly erupted volume wise, and I don't think I've ever heard an ovation so loud at the ROH.

Wagner of course broke off after Act II, as he felt he couldn't yet compose the music he needed to for the close of Siegfried, and so honed his skill with two little compositional exercises commonly referred to Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg. The abrupt and inevitable change in style between Act II and Act III is hard to complain about when the later music is of such manifest inspiration and consistent beauty and power: Act III combines the ecstatic erotics of Tristan, with the magnificent grandeur of Meistersinger, making it one of the most sheerly pleasurable Act of any of Wagner's operas in terms of aural beauty. What also changes though is the pacing - Wagner slows things right down, and suddenly psychology and philosophy are meant to do the heavy lifting drama wise. I liked Wotan's casting aside of his books and objects of power as he prepares to reject the Will, though the scene with Erda is slightly underwhelming. He does hurry along his desire to end the gods' power by goring her which was rather strong. Vinke's goonishly smiling Siegfried is well contrasted to Terfel's wracked Wanderer though again the scene didn't quite resonate with the energy it needed. Then the fated meeting of Siegfried and Brunnhilde: this is where Warner's staging begins to falter, and he finds it difficult to consummate the eroticism that is in the text and music. First is the botched scene when Siegfried awakens Brunnhilde - it all occurs behind a large wall, which Siegfried pops out from behind occasionally to tel the audience about what he's thinking/doing. When Brunnhilde has actually woken up and the duet occurs they are barely touching, let alone interracting - often they are stationed at opposite sides of the stage singing about the feel of warm breath and bodies. Does Warner not believe in their genuine attraction? At one point we see them either side of a table: Brunnhilde's domestication - the transformation from goddess to woman, but still there's no intimacy. Strangely her horse is dead, and only the head remains - are they both delusional about this? Is it a clue to the rest? (This doesn't resolve itself in Gotterdammerung either...) The ending then is unsatisfactory and a disappointment after the compelling first two acts.

Terfel's Wanderer is quite interesting - subtly acted and with a lot of vocal nuance - but also problematic. He doesn't quite register with the quiet import that he should, and though he can more than sing all the notes, the timbre is very bright and metallic for a bass baritone - not quite what we have come to expect in this role. Having missed Susan Bullock's Brunnhilde in Walkure (I'm seeing it 18th Oct), my first experience of her was much less bad than the reports I had been hearing. She certainly wasn't too quiet as so many have claimed, at least from where I was sitting, though she is clearly working quite hard, and can't truly "ride" the orchestra in the fashion of the truly great Brunnhildes. It's not a very beautiful sound and there is significant wobble on the high notes which are squally and metallic, but she can sing quite beautifully in the quiet moments, and anything below about a g above the staff is basically OK. Her diction is good and she manages to get the text across quite well. (I liked her more in Gotterdammerung, so will talk more of her there.) Similarly to Rheingold, I thought Maria Radner had the right colour, but not enough weight for Erda. I really don't think Sophie Bevan is cast well when doing these light, high lyric coloratura roles (as here with the Woodbird)- she can sing the notes, but the voice is heavier and darker than is ideal. Wolfgang Koch and Eric Halfvarson both more than did the job as Alberich and Fafner.

Pappano takes an almost Straussian delight in the wonderful orchestral effects of the first two acts and makes them exciting and surging, while sensitively accompanying the cast. The orchestra are sounding magnificent under him at the moment, and the warmth and beauty of Act 3 was quite wonderful. It's not the grandest or deepest Wagner you've ever heard in terms of long range structure or shape, but that possibly wouldn't play ideally to the slightly fragile cast. In the purely orchestral sections he really lets the orchestra go, and the momentum and power is infectious - I couldn't wait for the conclusion in Gotterdammerung (which I have now seen).

Monday 8 October 2012

Rusalka with Glyndebourne on Tour

06/10/2012 (opening night)

This is the fourth time I've seen Rusalka in the last 18 months, and as I've said before it's one of my favourite operas, so I always look forward to going.

It may be coincidence - but having now seen both of Melly Stills' opera productions in quick succession (this and The Cunning Little Vixen, both at Glyndebourne), certain directorial/design traits, or if I'm less charitable, ticks, are already becoming apparent. One is that the scenery is always drawn in rather broad strokes, and whilst superficially pleasing and arresting in overall appearance, it is ugly in most details, never quite managing to be the naive depiction of the sublime beauty and majesty of nature that it is clearly intended to be. As is always the risk with this sort of aesthetic, the whiff of amateur production (albeit with a huge budget) hangs uncomfortably over everything. There are enough ideas and visuals that it is never boring, but neither narrative focus nor emotional subtext is a strength. The results of this is that there is very little sense of story arc or growth for any of the principal roles, and one happily and attentively follows the plot without becoming emotionally engaged. The lack of psychological subtlety or detail in interactions between characters, means that there's no sense of dramatic necessity driving the plot forward and as an audience we are never required to involve ourselves in the characters' plight either.

This is also linked with the problem of having too much "stage business" going on. The opening underwater scenes contain a lot of choreographed lifting to simulate swimming motions, and the "helpers" garbed all in black that assist in this also add their own dance moves, as if they are a force of spirits under the mer-people's command. Unfortunately this seemed a little under-rehearsed, or if it wasn't, then ill-conceived, because never captured was the grace and ease with which real sea creatures move. But more problematically, it was a constant distraction from the important dramatic events that were occurring - Rusalka's rejection of her father's wishes, and her first tense meeting with Jezibaba. When finally she is freed from the water, we as viewers are still not freed from extraneous stage movement - Jezibaba brings on her own funny troupe of drag versions of herself which make it a comedy scene (fair enough), but also mean that the moment of regret that we should feel at the desperate physical and spiritual self mutilation that Rusalka has just chosen didn't register or resonate with the full horror and shock that it should have done. Leaving aside psychological tensions, even the actual removal of the tail doesn't seem that bad or even notable as an event, and Rusalka seems to recover quickly enough. I could go on, but one gets the idea.

As a bit of an aside, specific visual similarities in the two productions are also revealed on closer comparison: trees constructed from lots of pieces of square cut timbre, and animals with detachable body parts - here a doe with detachable ears and antlers -  and in the case of Vixen, foxes with detachable tails. Both annoyed me and the latter began to grate after it became the entire interest in too many scenes.

I may be alone in all this criticism- the most common adjectives I hear from people describing this production is "magical" and "beautiful". (Most notably perhaps: twice the lights go right down and the scruffy reeds become a starry vista of tiny lights - this effect never fails to melt an audience, myself included, in any of the many theatre productions that have used it.) My guess though is that although 80% of the audience will enjoy the show, on reflection few will actually be that moved by it. I must stress that I don't hate it, and as I say Stills never bores at least, but it is engaging in the wrong way - that is it engages on a quite superficial level, rather than as a result of it being compelling drama or emotionally involving. And I believe that Dvorak's opera is more than capable of being both of these things.

Musical values however, are very strong.

The title role is often seen as a spinto part, and though it is true that the climaxes require significant volume and energy, careful study of the score reveals that whenever these climaxes come, the orchestation is so brilliantly clear and careful to avoid the soprano's tessitura, that a full lyric voice, with a very focussed, well produced sound, is quite capable of sounding ample in the part. I say this only because the timbre of Rusalka's instrument is so important - she is all radiant youth, innocence and beauty, and even in the moments of passion and struggle she shouldn't sound like a Brunnhilde calling her Valkyries to battle. Wobble and any hint of roughness is out - silvery legato and surging lyricism is in. In the past it was easier to find this combination in singers perhaps, but these days, the true lirico spinto is a rare phenomenon, and in this role I would always urge the importance of the timbre and expressive flexibility of the voice, over decibels.

The cast was uniformly excellent, truly brilliant for regional opera, and at the price that Glyndebourne is offering these touring tickets, amazing. Natasha Jouhl's voice has a lovely fast vibrato and sweet timbre that puts her squarely in the full lyric category, but there is enough heft to potentially endow the voice with spinto capabilities in the future. Her technique is largely excellent, and she has the potential to be a quite special singer I think. But there were issues here - the first was that in middle register occasionally very audibly crackled when she was singing loudly. This could have been slight phlegminess or signs of mild illness, but I thought it might also be the result of too much air pressure on the chords, or "pushing" too much. I asked a singer friend about a possible cause of this crackling sound and she confirmed that this may indeed have been a cause (amongst a whole host of other possibilities!). The second issue, may well be related: though Jouhl's legato is generally quite exceptional (a manifestly Good thing), again when singing loud, the ends of notes often flattened out vibrato wise and the sound became slightly screamy, which significantly marred the legato line. Again, it sounded like too much breath was escaping just before the next consonant, but it's the sort of thing that I can imagine the singer them self would find it difficult to hear without a recording of their singing. Putting too much pressure on this voice too young would be a real error and a shame, because as I say, I think it has the potential to be a very significant and exceptionally expressive instrument, whose vibrancy is such that this sort of forcing is unnecessary anyway. Interpretation wise, I wish she had lingered a little more occasionally in Rusalka's lyrical passages, but this was largely a beautiful portrayal. During these passages, I was astonished by how often she was asked to sing whilst lying or sitting, which she dealt with very well vocally, but it really limited the range of her movements and expressions, which was surely at least part of why she was difficult to get involved with as a character. Obviously this is not her fault, but another infelicity of the direction.

Almost outshining Jouhl, Tatiana Pavlovskaya made a magnificent Foreign Princess. She's possibly not the most natural actress (or perhaps just doesn't quite have the temperament for baddies), but the voice is absolutely gorgeous: a very dark, Slavic, mezzo-like timbre, with a truly superlative technique, and a seamless, silken, satiny sound at any volume or pitch. Truly outstanding. I have no idea why she isn't a bigger name - I can only imagine that she is consciously avoiding too many engagements. Glyndebourne take note: Please hire her as Tatiana in Eugene Onegin - she's absolutely stellar, vocally ideal for that role, and might do very well in a  "nice girl" role. Mischa Schelomianski is a young bass baritone, and his voice is likely to grow richer and fuller with age, but already he impressed greatly as Vodnik with the evenness of his sound, already very beautiful and deep, and a the technique available to sing phrases with a true piano, not altogether common in this voice type. (I saw both in the same roles in the main festival last year, but both impressed more this time.)

The role of the prince requires a heldentenor with a lyric sound and as such is difficult to cast ideally (I was totally spoiled by Bryan Hymel's gorgeous portrayal earlier this season at the ROH), but Peter Berger does admirably, singing heroically with a pleasing bright sound and lack of strain, even if he dodges the very highest notes of the role. He doesn't quite look the part (why always clothe his large frame so unfairly in such tight shirts?), and I wasn't convinced with his portrayal of the character, who didn't have a strong enough personality, but I have already discussed this aspect of the production.

Anne Mason I thought was far too soft and nice as the witch Jezibaba, and her blank expression and lack of intensity betrayed a lack of involvement and characterisation that made her an obvious weak link. By Act III she had stepped up her game a bit, but it was almost bizarre how little effort she appeared to be making in presenting any sort of character in what should be a gift of a role in this respect. All the minor parts were very convincingly taken - the three woodnymphs (Evgenia Sotnikova, Michaela Kapustova and Alessandra Volpe) sounding youthful, joyous and lovely in their scene (so clearly a folked-up rip-off of Wagner's Rhinemaidens and at a further distance of his Valkyries!), and Robert Poulton and Eliana Pretorian were both excellent vocally as the gamekeeper and kitchen girl (usually a kitchen boy). As I say, Glyndebourne on Tour have out done themselves on rounding up such an excellent cast for this production.

Jakub Hrusa lead a clean and largely accurate reading. In the gorgeous final scene, he managed to draw a truly symphonic fullness and sense of structure from his players, but I wish this had come a little earlier as the general feel until then had been rather fragmentary and stop start, however lovely the individual moments of colour were (this is one of the most ravishing of all opera scores). The playing is uniformly good, if occasionally ragged, but one could scarcely expect better from a touring opera company.

Worth going to see for the singing, and then you can make up your own mind about the production!

Sunday 7 October 2012

The Emperor of Atlantis with English Touring Opera

Lindbury Theatre

The Emperor of Atlantis. This extraordinary little opera was written in the "show camp" of Theresienstadt in 1943, before the composer Victor Ullmann was deported to Auschwitz in 1944. The score is endearingly quirky, drawing on Weill, Hindemith, Bach, Suk, and more lyrical elements from Schubert or perhaps even Strauss (the final duet of Rosenkavalier is echoed in one of the duets for instance), and its wild eclecticism not just of style, but of mood and colour gives it a charm and bite that is peculiarly affecting. Some portions are simply gorgeous - the shifting, dark beauty of the emperor's aria and then the crystalline luminosity and simplicity of the final quartet take the breath away in a good performance. Obviously the circumstances of its conception add hugely to the poignancy of it, but taken as a work on its own terms, it has genuine emotional power and originality.

James Conway's production is wonderfully strong as a concept, with beautifully conceived lighting (Guy Hoare), costumes and sets (by Neil Irish) to create an unnerving circus-cabaret-in-a-concentration-camp atmosphere, all with the simplest of means and greatest economy. The scene between the soldier and the girl which teeters on the edge between danger and eroticism, disgust and desire, was particularly arresting. Unfortunately, as is sometimes the case with this director, he struggled to draw out the narrative, and the piece seems like a series of powerfully imagined scenes connected thematically rather than chronologically. As I say though, design wise, this is as strong as anything I have seen this year, and for this alone is worth seeing.

Who Ullmann imagined would sing it is an interesting question - the vocal parts require voices of great flexibility and beauty - perhaps he had some exceptional voices at his disposal? The feeling with ETO's cast was largely that they were merely managing - the exceptions were Paula Sides whose sweet light lyric voice sounded pleasingly free above the stave, and Callum Thorpe who was similarly sweet toned and unstrained.
Robert Winslade Anderson never seemed entirely engaged with his role (Death), and the nasality of the timbre puts what might be an impressive bass-baritone voice behind a gauze of pinched sound. The Emperor gets an exceptionally beautiful aria of almost Schoeckian intensity and loveliness, but Richard Mosley-Evans really struggled to sing its wide ranging contours and long lines- perhaps he was unwell? Jeffrey Stewart as harlequin wails approximately through his role, sliding in and out of pitch, though tenor Rupert Charlesworth as the Soldier is sweeter and more controlled. Katie Bray works hard as the drummer, but her vibrato is far too uncontrolled and variably wide to be describable as beautiful. The chamber orchestra played stylishly, but I wanted far greater contrasts to be brought out in the music by conductor Peter Selwyn: light and shade, soft and hard, beauty and comedy.

Before this event cellist Anita Lasker Wallfisch gave a short interview about her experiences in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her face I felt I already recognised from its similarity to her famous son Raphael Wallfisch (also a cellist), but instantly her solid alto voice and manner, her unflinching and no nonsense approach to the slightly fanciful questions that she was asked revealed a character of enormous dignity, strength and self assurance, with a gravitas that made you hang on every word. At times her directness and simplicity in talking about these events almost moved me to tears. Theresienstadt was a "show camp" designed as a smoke screen for the outside world - her musical experiences in Auschwitz were quite different. After having been in prison, she got deported to the camp in 1942. A women's orchestra had been formed by Mahler's niece, Alma Rosé, a "ridiculous" motley crew of half musicians - banjos, guitars and so on, but they lacked a bass instrument: she was their "saviour". But music really did save her life as she was allowed to play marches in this band until the camp was evacuated in 1944, and she was taken west to the concentration camp at Belsen, which was liberated in 1945. When asked whether the music gave her spiritual strength, she was quite clear: this was not a time for poetic ideas like that - surviving day to day was the aim of life. They were very fearful of Alma, who was very strict, so much so that they forgot that around them were gas chambers. Alma saved her life. Why did the Nazis want these orchestras in every concentration camp? The simple answer: the German people have a strong love of music -these were educated, cultured people. Not the people carrying out the dirty work, but the designers and planners of this catastrophy, this affront on humanity - they weren't monsters, they were educated people, who liked music. Reinhard Heydrich she said was a good violinist. She was asked once to played Schumann's Träumerei for Dr. Mengele. He had come to them, after doing god knows what, and clearly wanted to hear some Schumann. Yes, she knew who he was, no, she didn't think about it, she only thought of playing the piece, and leaving safely. Her answers reveal the simplicity and paring down of thought that the camp mindset required. Anything else would have lead to madness. The interviewer extolled the virtues of Anita's book about her experiences, Inherit the Truth, and without a flicker of a smile and without missing a beat, Anita responded "now I am getting propaganda too".

One of the most often repeated clichés in musical commentary (along with, "the cello is the instrument closest to the voice") is that "Bach can survive any treatment". I beg to differ, and have never heard an arrangement that is not "in Bach's style" that sounds as beautiful as the original. Anyhow, presumably the opera's short duration meant that the director felt it wasn't good value for money as it stood, and so tacked on, unexpectedly, Bach's cantata Christ lag in Todes Banden (BWV4) as a curtain raiser. But some ill hand had reorchestrated it to include as many of the available instruments as possible (including a sax and a clarinet) always indelicately and glutinously such that the timbre became an undifferentiated wash of humming wind sounds amongst idle string soughing. The chorale is quoted in the opera, but though both pieces are about death, neither mood, colour or spirit is shared between the pieces, and when the singers were merely fine, I just kept silently screaming to myself: why? If anything, why not couple the opera with something like Gideon Klein's heartbreakingly beautiful string trio, also composed in Theresienstadt at the same time? 

For those who are curious, the best recording to get of this opera is undoubtedly this one (click the link!) which has exquisite singing throughout and is ravishingly played, but here's a video excerpt of a different specially filmed performance, which includes the two most beautiful numbers mentioned above.

Friday 5 October 2012

Julietta at the ENO


Martinu remains a master of music whose time has still not yet come. Perhaps he will never achieve true popularity, but amongst sympathetic listeners he has his following. His profile is not as strong or quirky as his compatriot Janacek who has attained a degree of repertoire status, but he still has a very individual personality and his music rewards exploration. Part of the problem is that the sheer size of his output prevents wider dissemination: it's hard to get an overview when there are famously over 400 opus numbers, making him exceptionally prolific amongst 20th century composers. But his melodic gift, always instantly recognisable in it's Dvorakian generosity, memorability and folk inflected contours, allied with his luminous harmony and orchestration make him one of the most positive of 20th century composers. In the early career of the 20s, spiky neoclassicism is the preferred style, but this relaxes into a more lush romanticism in the 30s and 40s, which gets ever mistier and more complicated in the later symphonies, which have a peculiar aura, a chromatic haze, and buzzing restlessness which adds yet another interesting flavour to his fundamental warmth. His last few symphonies and chamber music are particular favourites for mine - the second cello sonata for instance I would rank the equal of any composed in the 20th century.

Julietta then is a departure: it is much drier and thinner than is Martinu's norm, but we are also told of his rewrites and revisions from his death bed - this was the piece about which he cared more than any other. The first thing that struck me were the clear and constant allusions to the Rite of Spring - not just in the high bassoon writing of the melodic fragment that opens the opera and keeps reappearing, but in the harmony, the orchestration, the little motivic fragments in their contour and use of intervals twist and wail just as they do in the Rite. It also shares the Rite's anti-lyricism, and psychological rawness - anti refinement, rather than anti sophistication. Folksyness is largely absent, though occasionally the familiar Martinu breaks through (usually during love scenes), with his unmistakable melodic sweep and harmonic circularity but it's only ever for a few bars, and we're back to dryness. Act I and II occur during the protagonist's sleep, and act III, only marginally less surreal, is set in the Ministry of Dreams, ostensibly existing in the real waking world, a place were people purchase dream fantasies. A dream within a dream? The music here in the 'real world' is considerably juicier, suggesting again that the dryness of the rest is a choice. We need to ask ourselves why Martinu chose to do this before dismissing the score's dessication, unappealing harshness and inconsistency of tone.

I think the key lies in the uncomfortable surrealism of the libretto - the opera isn't meant to be wacky in any way, but an exploration of the subconscious, fantasy and wish fulfilment. Dreams are only very rarely glowing landscapes and beautiful emotions (and Martinu does provide us with these things, if briefly), they are mostly fragmentary, inane, and occasionally unsettling. If they tell us anything, it is uncomfortable truths and hidden desires. Though I did enjoy Richard Jones's production visually I often thought that he was missing the point - he'd always go for a laugh when the libretto let him, rather than give a situation a more sinister or even disturbing undertone. A world in which no one can remember anyone, is a nightmarish one, not a whimsical one. That Michel chooses to remain in his fantasy, in love with his fictional lover even when he knows he's wrong is an interesting and jarring conclusion, in opera of all art forms which usually has such simple, black and white resolutions.

Still, Act I worked well, the acting and lighting choreographed to the music to a very impressive degree. The forest scene of Act II fell flatter dramatically, but Act III picked up again, at least for the first half with its army of zombie like people trying to escape life into dreams - a disturbing vision. Across the three acts, the over riding set motif was a huge accordion, which actually only appears in the libretto and music in Act I, but here each act offered a different view of it. Maybe it doesn't need to make sense logically in this of all pieces, and it certainly was one of the strongest things visually I've seen at the opera for a while, but then it could have pushed far more into the surreal and phantasmagorical, or gone much further with the perverse, bastardised logic of the libretto.

Peter Hoare did very well in the title role, leading us ably through the drama: he probably sings at least half the vocal writing in the opera - Julietta is actually a quite minor presence. There's a rough edge in the voice which didn't matter too much here, as lyricism is not what this character is about. (As an aside, in costume I thought he looked quite a lot like comedian Simon Amstel.) Julia Sporsén sung some lovely phrases as Julietta, though the vibrato is just a little wide and slow for me to honestly say that this is a beautiful voice - the ideal would surely be the creamiest lyric soprano available to reflect the wish fulfilment and fantasy that this character represents. The rest of the cast also acquitted themselves very well without anyone particularly standing out. A very good ensemble effort, and this is by no means an opera about vocal display.

I know I always complain about this, but the Coliseum's acoustics really hampered my appreciation of the often excellent orchestral playing (and I was sitting in the stalls!). In all honesty I think I couldn't tell you what kind of conductor Ed Gardner is because I've never really heard the sound that the ENO orchestra makes. His conducting seemed authoritative, but didn't have the special sparkle and energy of Macckeras' recording of excerpts - however, is this just the damp acoustics, or is it a genuine lack of focus in the playing? I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Thursday 4 October 2012

Glyndebourne's 2013 Season in full (with casts)

Ariadne auf Naxos

A new production for the 2013 Festival
Sung in German with English supertitles

Conductor .................................Vladimir Jurowski
Director.....................................Katharina Thoma
Set Designer..............................Julia Müer
Costume Designer......................Irina Bartels
Lighting Designer .......................Olaf Winter
Movement Director ................... Lucy Burge

London Philharmonic Orchestra

Music Master............................Thomas Allen
Ariadne.....................................Soile Isokoski
Composer..................................Kate Lindsey
Zerbinetta.................................Teodora Gheorghiu
Harlequin..................................Dmitry Vargin
Scaramuccio..............................James Kryshak
Truffaldino................................Torben Jürgens
Brighella ...................................Andrew Stenson
Bacchus ....................................Sergey Skorokhodov
Dancing Master........................Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
                                                 Guy de Mey (June 13, 20 & 23)
Naiad........................................Ana Maria Labin
Dryad........................................Elodie Méchain
Echo .........................................Gabriela Iştoc


A revival of the 2009 Festival production.
Sung in Italian with English supertitles

Conductor .................................Mark Elder
Director.....................................Richard Jones
Revival Director ........................Sarah Fahie
Lighting Designer ......................Mimi Jordan Sherin

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
The Glyndebourne Chorus

Falstaff ..................................... Laurent Naouri
Alice Ford .................................Ailyn Perez
Ford..........................................Roman Burdenko
Meg Page .................................Lucia Cirillo
Mistress Quickly .......................Susanne Resmark
Nannetta ...................................Elena Tsallagova
Fenton.......................................Antonio Poli
Dr Cajus....................................Graham Clark
Bardolfo ....................................Colin Judson
Pistola .......................................Paolo Battaglia

Le Nozze di Figaro

A revival of the 2012 Festival production
Co-production with Houston Grand Opera
and the Metropolitan Opera
Sung in Italian with English supertitles

Conductor................................... Jérémie Rohrer
Director....................................... Michael Grandage
Revival Director........................... Ian Rutherford
Designer...................................... Christopher Oram
Lighting Designer .........................Paule Constable
Movement Director .....................Ben Wright

London Philharmonic Orchestra
The Glyndebourne Chorus

cast includes
Figaro.......................................... Adam Plachetka
Susanna....................................... Laura Tatulescu
Countess..................................... Amanda Majeski
Count.......................................... Joshua Hopkins
Bartolo........................................ Luciano Di Pasquale
Marcellina .................................. Anne Mason
Cherubino................................... Lydia Teuscher
Don Basilio ................................. Timothy Robinson
Antonio....................................... Nicholas Folwell
Don Curzio.................................. Alasdair Elliott

Hippolyte et Aricie

A new production for the 2013 Festival
Sung in French with English supertitles

Conductor................................... William Christie
Director....................................... Jonathan Kent
Designer...................................... Paul Brown
Lighting Designer....................... Mark Henderson
Choreographer............................ Ashley Page

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
The Glyndebourne Chorus

cast includes
Hippolyte..................................... Ed Lyon
Aricie .......................................... Christiane Karg
Phèdre......................................... Sarah Connolly
Thésée......................................... Stéphane Degout
Pluton/Jupiter/Neptune.................. François Lis
Diane .......................................... Stéphanie D’Oustrac
Œnone......................................... Julie Pasturaud
Mercure....................................... Samuel Boden
Arcas/Parque 2 ........................... Aimery Lefèvre
Tisiphone...................................... Loïc Felix
L’ Amour/Une Matelote................Ana Quintans
Grande-Prêtresse/Chasseresse......Emmanuelle de Negri
Suivant de L’Amour/Parque 1.......Mathias Vidal
Parque 3 ......................................Callum Thorpe

Don Pasquale

A revival of the 2011 Tour production
Sung in Italian with English supertitles

Conductor................................... Enrique Mazzola
Director....................................... Mariame Clément
Designer...................................... Julia Hansen
Lighting Designer....................... Bernd Purkrabek

London Philharmonic Orchestra
The Glyndebourne Chorus

cast includes
Don Pasquale.............................. Alessandro Corbelli
Malatesta ................................... Nikolay Borchev
Ernesto........................................ Alek Shrader
Norina......................................... Danielle de Niese

Billy Budd

A revival of the 2010 Festival production
Sung in English with English supertitles

Conductor................................... Andrew Davis
Director....................................... Michael Grandage
Designer...................................... Christopher Oram
Lighting Designer......................... Paule Constable

London Philharmonic Orchestra
The Glyndebourne Chorus

cast includes
Captain Vere............................... Mark Padmore
Billy Budd ................................... Jacques Imbrailo
Claggart...................................... Brindley Sherratt
Mr Redburn................................. Stephen Gadd
Mr Flint....................................... David Soar
Lieutenant Ratcliffe....................... Christian Van Horn
Red Whiskers.............................. Alasdair Elliott
Donald ........................................ John Moore
Dansker....................................... Jeremy White
The Novice.................................. Peter Gijsbertsen
Squeak ........................................ Colin Judson
Bosun.......................................... Richard Mosley-Evans
Maintop....................................... Dean Power
The Novice’s Friend ................... Duncan Rock

Finally, Glyndebourne return to Strauss after a significant gap, with Ariadne auf Naxos. More lyric voices are always my preference in Strauss, and Ariadne might well be ideal for Isokoski who is not much of a stage animal, but does still possess one of the most glorious Strauss sopranos of the moment. It's not the biggest voice, so Glyndebourne really is the perfect place for her to sing this role. Sergei Skorokhodov I saw at the recent LPO concert and he also does not have the largest voice, but it seems very well produced and ultra steady so it will be interesting to see his Bacchus, famously one of the hardest and least grateful in the tenor repertory. Thomas Allen is always good news, and it'll be interesting to hear the intriguingly named Teodora Gheorghiu - a relation to the more famous one? She sounds great here and here, so I'm quite excited about the musical values of this production. Vladimir Jurowski in the pit too in his final season as artistic director of Glyndebourne - couldn't be bettered as a choice in my opinion (Thielemann or Eschenbach would equal).

Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie is a beauty, astonishingly the composer's first opera. I have to say that it's not my favourite Rameau opera, as it's not quite as harmonically adventurous or ingenious orchestration wise as the later operas, but there are enough moments of searing beauty to call it a Great opera. There's that classic recording with Baker as Phedre but I like the one with William Christie even more - so I'm very pleased that he's been chosen to conduct this time. He had the incomparable Lorraine Hunt as Phedre (hear her here and here), but Glyndebourne have cast Sarah Connolly, who I'm sure will also be magnificent.

Glyndebourne's Don Pasquale is an excellent production, beautifully simple and a delight when it was introduced in the 2011 tour with a decent cast. I was completely surprised and delighted by Danielle de Niese's performance in L'Elisir d'Amor last summer at Glyndebourne, not just a natural actress and charming stage personality, but the voice has come on so much in the past two years or so. So I am very pleased to see that she has been cast as Norina.

I was not all that keen on this years Nozze di Figaro, so may not bother this time, unless one of the cast members starts enthusing me (I haven't heard of any, but will start researching all!).

Billy Budd I missed last time at Glyndebourne and everyone went gaga for it then, so I'm looking forward to that too. Same with Falstaff which didn't get such good reviews, but is such a lovely score that I wouldn't miss an opportunity to see it. Interesting that it's being done with the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment too... unless that is a typo in the programme... Apparently the LPO are doing Figaro. Hmm.

Tour wise things look great too - new production Rape of Lucretia, L'Elisir d'Amor, and for me most excitingly a return of Laurent Pelly's wonderful Hansel and Gretel.

Tuesday 2 October 2012

Das Rheingold at the ROH

Das Rheingold is an opera that's easy to like but hard to love. As an exposition to the Ring it works very well of course, but the lack of a romantic storyline, and lack even of much emotional content, is reflected in the music which is composed in short cinematic scenes, without much lyricism, and without the feeling of the large harmonic paragraphs that are such a feature of the preceding Lohengrin, and become ever more a feature of Wagner's dramatic construction in Walkure, Tristan and Meistersinger.

What it does provide is action at a rather rapid pace, at least by Wagnerian standards, and opportunity for directors to impress us with their ingenius solutions to the works numerous problems of staging (giants, transmogrification, a rainbow bridge, a river of gold). And to say there is no lyricism is unfair: the opening is one of the most glorious in all opera, the longest orchestrated crescendo before Ravel's Bolero, and one of the most evocative things the Ring. I've always seen this as a depiction of creation, so it was pleasing here that it was accompanied by images redolent of this idea. And the final 20 minutes, from Erda's warning onwards are truly gorgeous music, and a relief from the relative terseness of what came before, a slowing of pace, and return to the beauty of the opening.

What strikes one most about Keith Warner's production is how many jokes there are. Freia is an airheaded bimbo who regularly drifts into lala land, keeps forgetting about the dangers of her captors, staring at them through the glass and at one moment hilariously letting them in again just as the others have locked them out. The giants (a mole and an industrialist respectively) are sort of comedy characters too - a large top hat is removed to reveal an equally large and bulbous egg-head. Froh is nervy and camped up as is often done, and he also keeps playing with his lighter. There are lots of other little moments of comedy. Only Fricka and Wotan are "seria" characters in this divine comedy, and they all act as petty squabblers rather than gods of all creation. Design wise the aesthetic is vaguely steam punk, or maybe Harry Potter like if you prefer that comparison - Freia and Fricka are dressed as Mozartian Countesses (they are the reactionaries), whereas Wotan is in more modern attire and the rest are in some sort of steam punkish 19th century limbo. Alberich is a onesie wearing tyrant, with a science lab that is reminiscent of the early 20th century, certainly "future" compared to the rest. The sets are mostly very dark and shiny (disastrously in the case of the centre circle where Wotan is seen crouching under the stage in a reflection and stage hands are seen passing up various objects.)

A fantasy setting then. But it's not that atmospheric, and the boxy, contained feeling of the set reflects the non-epic scale of the story telling - it's engaging but nothing seems that important. At least not yet. Maybe things will gain in gravitas as the cycle evolves, and I do want to find out what happens. Of course I already know, but you know what I'm saying. (Sadly I may not beable to due to other commitments).

I've been worried lately that Bryn Terfel has started shouting a bit when singing loud, but here he was in very good form. The voice has lost some of the rich lustre and beautiful depth of ten years ago, but he is still very in control, can sing a lovely piano, and his textual acuity and beautiful German diction remain as keen and clear as ever. He is also a good actor, far better than the ham that people sometimes take him for, and his Wotan I am sure will continue to gain depth as he moves further into this repertoire.

Sarah Conolly was as good as expected as Fricka, and made the most of the little she has to sing in this opera. Here she was imperious and proud and in Wallhalla, seemed as much in charge of the gods as Wotan. So far she has largely focussed on lyric roles as her beautiful mezzo doesn't have the steel for truly dramatic singing, but she was quite at ease here and never once seemed underpowered. Her one truly lyrical phrase bemoaning the fate of the gods revealed a gorgeous legato line which made me thirsty to see her in the great Fricka scene in Walkure which will surely be a treat (I really hope I manage to get to see it).

Maria Radner has a lovely alto voice, and probably gets the best music to sing in the opera, but doesn't quite have the vocal heft to make Erda's appearance the earth shattering, soul stirring experience that it should be. Why not Eva Podlés!? I don't know how she's really sounding these days, but she was certainly impressive as the comedy role of the mother in Massenet's Cendrillon two seasons ago. No one ever sings Alberich's music beautifully, and Wolfgang Koch does well in this part, though is maybe a little bit too much of a comedy foil (though he has his very sinister moments, such as an attempted rape on a dissection table). Iain Paterson and Eric Halfverson manage fine as Fasolt and Fafner though neither exactly boom. Nothing too much to complain about though, and Rheingold is hardly a "singers" opera anyway.

Ann Murray Masterclass at the Royal Academy

Royal Academy

Ann Murray is one of those singers who you can trust will always give a good performance, where there's simply no question about dramatic commitment or mastery of the notes. In that she reminds me of John Tomlinson - it's not that they are perfect singing actors, but neither seem capable of doing anything on stage that would for a moment suspend your belief in the character that is being presented in front of you at that moment. Which is probably a large part of why I admire both so intensely. They are as natural on stage as you can be in the unnatural world of opera.

With her brightly flashing eyes, Irish wit, and rapid fire way of talking and moving she is easy to like in the masterclass situation. You can't imagine that she could ever be idle for very long - she's too interested in people and her art form - everything seems urgent and important, and communication and intent seem to be the things that most excite her and where her focus is in instruction. Technique was never mentioned, but how to use the notes to say something musically along with the words certainly was. She's funny too, but only to dispel worries and create an atmosphere conducive to risk taking; she has no interest in regaling us with witty anecdotes about famous conductor X or Tenor Y. She demonstrated occasionally, and we got to hear her toss off some Donna Anna coloratura(!), not to show off of course, but only to better explain when a student was finding it difficult to make expressive these difficult passages and where demonstration seemed to be a better way of showing than words. She still has a lot of voice left, and the strength of intent is palpable in her sound and her body every time, even in the smallest phrase.

As is so often the case, the young students found it difficult to take on her suggestions even when they were relatively simple like where to accent a phrase. It always seems so surprising sitting in the audience of a masterclass when the teacher keeps asking a student to change something like for instance singing something with more forward momentum, and the adjustment the student makes each time is so negligible as to seem almost laughable. Presumably the student is really trying and thinks they are being wildly different, but it shows you how difficult is to truly listen to yourself as a musician, and also how much muscle memory plays a part in singing a phrase, and why changing bad technique, let alone an interpretation is so difficult for so many singers. These things take repetition over days and weeks and months to change, but really it is the freedom that an excellent technique provides that is the ultimate key - technique is as much about having options with regard to singing a phrase than it is about singing faster or in becoming efficient in terms of muscle and energy usage.

On one occasion at least though, Murray helped the student to go from a moderately good piece of Handel singing, to a breathtaking moment of drama as Caeser pictures his father while realising what he must become at the beginning of the eponymous opera. By focussing and guiding the student's gestures and emotion not only did her acting improve but miraculously the singing too - it's this sort of intensity that separates the big time singers from those that are merely competent.

I wasn't so impressed with the young singers this time, though I did manage to hear Sarah-Jane Lewis again, this time in French repertoire, which seemed to be living up to its reputation as the hardest language to sing in. The voice was still wonderfully lustrous (especially in Duparc's La vie antérieure), but she seemed to sing with greater ease and fluency in the Italian Mozart arias I heard last time.

A worthwhile and enjoyable few hours.