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Friday 28 December 2012

DVD Review: Les Boréades 2003 Opus Arte

Alphise: Barbara Bonney
Abaris: Paul Agnew
Calisis: Toby Spence
Borilée: Stéphane Degout
Borée: Laurent Naouri
Adamas, Apollon: Nicolas Rivenq
Sémire: Anna-Maria Panzarella
Une nymphe: Jael Azzaretti

Opéra National de Paris
Les Arts Florissents

Conductor: William Christie
Choreography: Édouard Lock (feat. La La La Human Steps)
Director: Robert Carsen
Sets and Costume Design: Michael Levine

Written when the composer was 80, Les Boréades is Rameau's final opera. Even at this age Rameau was exploring, and though it's not the most compelling of his operas, there is still much to admire. The exceptionally inventive, unusual and beautiful ballet music in Acts 3, 4 and 5 form the core of the work's musical appeal, but there are lovely moments for the solo voices and choir too, one particular highlight being the final brief duet for the lovers.

This opera does not have the richest libretto, and Robert Carsen has done a very admirable job in fleshing it out, creating a coherent and simple concept that binds the piece together, is visually strong, and is entirely respectful to the piece - absolutely no ironic quotations marks here. Carsen depicts a dour northern civilisation which the queen Alphise is from, and from which also come the two sons of Borée (Les Boréades), one of whom she is meant to choose as a suitor. They are affected, artificial, controlled and authoritarian. But her true love Abaris comes from a much warmer culture which is subjugated by the colder, officious civilisation. Overprinted on this is the play of seasons, and the very large dance element of this opera. It seems to be quite rare that dance sequences are well served in operas, at least in the UK, so it's a pleasure to see such accomplished dancers and interesting choreography. In fact, a large part of the character of the northern civilisation is communicated through the skittish, efficient, and alarmingly fast dances that this culture favours.

Barbara Bonney is the premier youthful lyric soprano of her generation, but has made a career primarily out of the German repertoire and she does not seem entirely in her element here. It's not just the language though - the role of Alphise requires dramatic declamation and weighty, angular coloratura which seem to really challenge her (disconcerting for us admirers that are used to everything seeming effortless for this singer). That said, she still does well as she is a superb actress and a captivating stage presence, and the basic timbre of the voice itself is quite lovely of course. Dramatically she's the complete opposite of Paul Agnew who plays her lover Abaris with superb delicacy and beauty of voice - with Agnew the acting and drama is all internal, and he seems surprised when he finds himself interacting with other people. Bonney is radiantly outward focused, reacting to and truly interacting with everyone and everything, especially touching and real in the final act when it is revealed that she is allowed to marry her lover.

The rest of the cast is good. Laurent Naouri is a bit hyperactive and small voiced to be really scary as Borée though he sings idiomatically and well. Toby Spence makes a horribly affected prince and a nicely sung one too. Stéphane Degout as his brother Borilée is a less accomplished singer and doesn't register so clearly as a character. Nicolas Rivenq makes a good Apollon and Adamas.

One can only be thankful for living in an age where William Christie conducts Rameau with Les Arts Florissents. All I can say is that this is music making of the first order* - exciting, characterful, sensitive, intelligent, beautiful. Truly beyond praise.

One really irritating aspect of this DVD is the terrible English subtitles - all theeing and thouing, often with very awkward word order. This makes them difficult to follow and while watching I spent far too much time trying to translate them into real English.

This video shows some of my favourite dance music in the opera - the first piece is the gorgeous Entree from Act IV, and then that charming and wonderful Gavotte for flute and bassoon, and then the final number with its rhythmic dislocations. You see also quite how brilliant the playing is in this production.

*At the moment we are actually lucky enough to have another Rameau conductor of the very highest level: Marc Minkowski

Tuesday 25 December 2012

DVD Review: Katya Kabanova Madrid 2008 with Karita Mattila

Teatro Real Madrid 2008
Director: Robert Carsen
Conductor: Jiří Bělohlávek.

Katya: Karita Mattila
Boris: Miroslav Dvorský
Kabanicha: Dalia Schaechter
Tichon: Guy De Mey
Varvara: Natascha Petrinsky

As with all of Janacek's mature operas, Katya Kabanova is a desert island score for me, one of the most thrilling, beautiful and moving of all operas. Of Janacek's operas it has the most extreme emotional contrasts and fastest pacing, the most opulently lyrical music and is also in a strange way the most traditional - the story is centred on a straight forward love affair, the diva gets two big scenas one of which is a mad scene, there's an extended  love duet in the middle act and the diva also dies in the end. As ever though, Janacek twists these conventional operatic plot elements to his own ends and produces something stranger, more psychologically harrowing, truthful and therefore more affecting and unsettling (at least for me) than most of his celebrated 19th century forebears could muster. The harmonic language too seems familiar and reassuringly tonal, but what Janacek does with his quite traditional materials is extraordinarily original, avoiding cliché and convention with visionary conviction and almost wilful abandon. This might be said of any of Janacek's works of the final 20 years of his life, and his strangeness, intensity and the magnitude of his achievement only intensified with age: though I love almost everything in his output from Jenufa onwards, his most undeniably significant works all derive from his last decade, the very last being his most singularly original and unbeholden creations of all (From the House of the Dead and the Second String Quartet). One can only wonder at what might have lain ahead had he lived longer.

Carsen's staging (with sets by Patrick Kinmonth) is predictably minimalist, visually strong, and beautiful. The whole stage is flooded and the surrounding flat walls are atmospherically lit to look like huge open expanses of sky. The effect is very similar to his famous Met Eugene Onegin. The difference here is that the water is reflective, and when the stage lights are shining from the front, the whole scene is reflected/projected onto the back with ghostly distortions. The ripples in the water become visible as wave fronts, and this is beautifully used by Katya to send a kiss across the water to Boris in the last act.

Characters walk around on wooden pallets which are reorganised by lots of silent Katya look alikes between scenes (multiples of the main character is a bit of a regietheatre cliché and I didn't think it was particularly illuminating here, and served mainly the exigencies of varying the stage's layout.) This really limits the movement of all characters and though it might have been fine in the theatre, up close it puts too many restraints on the range of physical actions the characters can make. The aim I think is to give a feeling of Katya's claustrophobic circumstances, though the wide open sets (no walls!) don't communicate this psychologically at all. The river Volga is an important element of the plot in Katya Kabanova, but in this instance, the admittedly arresting style of Carsen's choice takes precedent over the substance of what it achieves dramatically, to the detriment of the physical staging I think. The crowd scenes in Act 3, so brief, but also so key to the work's psychology are mishandled and confused and seem out of place dramatically. Overall it feels like there is a lot of depth in the work that remains untapped.

Just as with his Onegin, the focus then is meant to be squarely on the intimacy of the drama and subtle character interactions. Katya is a dreamy, girlish, impulsive, but radiantly spiritual character: she's the first of Janacek's representations of his beloved Kamila Stösslová and therefore seems to be an incarnation of the feminine divine as seen by Janacek's heart and soul (much as Arabella was for Strauss a decade later). Carsen doesn't attempt anything too radical here, but I'm not sure Karita Mattila is the ideal singing actress for this traditional view of the role. She is a rather statuesque lady, handsome and strange looking, though here unflatteringly dressed in girlish clothes that don't at all suit her frame, and as so often for this artist not at all helped by her make up (why are some artists always served well in this regard, and some almost never?). Despite these things she does a surprisingly good job of being convincingly young and girlish, but her approach also seems a bit generalised here, not responding word by word to the text with the dramatic intention not always completely clear. Sometimes her intensity can seem ill-focused as a result. The voice itself, despite being past its golden prime, is timbrally beautiful especially in the middle register, though I wish there were a little more sense of line to provide continuity to Janacek's sometimes fractured word setting. Still it's obvious that she's a singer of major standing and this is a well above average portrayal.

The rest of the cast are not this starry and generally are decent, though not of the highest quality. Natascha Petrinsky as Varvara has the demeanour and charm of a soubrette, contrasting well (perhaps too well) with Mattila's less natural, more ethereal stage deportment. Timbrally the voice is a little dark, and certainly the wide, slow vibrato, while controlled, doesn't speak to the character's youthful exuberance. Gordon Gietz is a charming Vana, and Miroslav Dvorsky provides a very decently sung Boris, both matching their partners in their respective love duets. Dalia Schaechter's is a weak link dramatically, failing to convince as the hard as nails matriarch Kabanicha, and though her low notes are strong, the vocal contribution is none too interesting either. 

Jiří Bělohlávek's gives a good reading of the score, which rarely however rises to the exceptional. There is much that is lovely, though one wishes that he'd lavish more attention on the details and take more time to work out the mechanics of Janacek's quirky orchestration and expert ear for sonority. Rhythmically too, things could be tighter. 

Perhaps (or rather almost certainly) I am spoiled by Mackerras and the Vienna Philharmonic who play not only with the expected sumptuous sound and fidelity to the score, but also with enormous character and atmosphere. His readings with that orchestra of the major operas set the gold standard for these wonderful works, and shine a beacon for Janacek's genius, when his works are still all too often inexpertly conducted.

DVD review: Castor et Pollux DVD 2008 Opus Arte

Telaire: Anna Maria Panzarella
Phebe: Véronique Gens
Cleone: Judith van Ranroij
Castor: Finnur Bjarnason
Pollux: Henk Neven
Jupiter: Nicolas Teste
High Priest: Thomas Oliemans
Mercury: Anders J Dahlin

Les Talens Lyriques
Chorus of de Nederlands Opera

Conductor: Christophe Rousset
Director: Pierre Audi
Set and Costume Designer: Patrick Kinmouth
Lighting: Jean Kalman
Choreographer: Amir Hossenpour

Castor et Pollux is one of my favourite Rameau operas - the fascinating story of brotherly love and the exciting beauty of the music make it an unusual and special piece. Unfortunately this production completely misses the mark and is in no way recommendable.

This opera is about tortured emotions, and the conflict between the desire for love and doing the right thing. Unfortunately director Pierre Audi and designer Patrick Kinmouth conspire to strip all characters of any individuality or personality to the extent where it's hard to understand what is going on or what the motivation for the character's actions are. The aesthetic is some sort of sci-fi future where both men and women are garbed almost identically in badly cut dresses, everyone has identical braided hair, and most people wear eyeliner, eyeshadow and lipgloss. Status and personality are not expressed through visual appearance. Sets look equally tacky and contrived and as so often with sci-fi are derived from a previous era of design but without its logic or coherence (in this case very vaguely Bauhaus). The only props are white cubes, and the only changes of scene are effected through lighting, usually with characters not even leaving the stage. The chorus sings from offstage throughout, and dancers act out the words.

The result is ugly, emotionally barren, dramatically turgid, confused and boring.

Musically things fare slightly better. All of the cast sing perfectly well, though there's nothing to get truly excited about here. Véronique Gens is the exception and manages to imbue her music with expression, but it's difficult to really see her as a big adversary when she's so placid like the rest of them, and dressed identically. The orchestra make a decent sound, though there's a lack of contrast in colour and timbre - Rameau's operas thrive on their exciting changes between soughing laments, energetic bombast and edgy virtuosity. Probably the orchestra is just too large to give the music the precision it needs (though a better conductor at the helm would surely help.)

Rameau was constantly revising his operas, and this performances uses the 1754 version rather than the original 1737 version. The original is a much more interesting piece, and the update cuts many of the most beautiful and original passages of the first version. Sadly this is a tendency with Rameau's revisions - to tone things down to please an ever less adventurous public.

Rameau is still a cause, and needs passionate advocacy to cement his place in the repertoire - outside of France his genius is still mostly appreciated by connoisseurs and far from widely accepted. Sadly this DVD is so boring and misguided that it will win him few new fans. Get the William Christie CD with Les Arts Florissants instead.

Monday 10 December 2012

Renée Fleming Recital at the Barbican


with Maciej Pikulski at the piano


Hugo Wolf: Goethe Lieder 
Frühling übers Jahr
Gleich und Gleich
Die Sprode
Die Bekehrte
Anakreons Grab

Mahler: Rückert Lieder
Ich Atmet einen Linden Duft
Liebst du um Schoenheit
Um Mitternacht
Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder
Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen

Arnold Schoenberg
Erwartung, Op 2, No 1
Jane Grey, Op 12, No 1

Alexander von Zemlinsky: Fünf Lieder auf Texte von Richard Dehmel
Letzte Bitte
Auf See

Sterbelied, Op 14, No 1
Das Heldengrab am Pruth, Op 9, No 5
Was Du mir bist, Op 22, No 1
Das Eilende Bachlein, Op 27, No 2

J Strauss arr. Korngold
Frag mich oft, from Walzer aus Wien

Strauss Zeuignung
Delibes Les filles de Cadix
Korngold Marietta's Lied

A very brave and enterprising programme this, with half the items virtually unknown, and the Mahler and Korngold only occasionally lapsing into crowd pleasing territory. All of the repertoire centres around the boiling cultural milieu of fin de siecle Vienna, with Wolf and Mahler at its neurotic peak, Schoenberg and Zemlinsky capturing its bloated decline into overripe decadence, and Korngold it's final wheezing descent into total kitsch and overwrought, indulgent luxuriance. This makes it sound like I don't like this period of music, but actually it is amongst my favourite times of all, and with the exception of Zemlinsky, I love all of these composers along of course with Strauss, Berg and Schreker. So much intensely beautiful music was being written in this part of the world at that time, though there is a spiritual sickness at the heart of a lot of it which is surely a part of its fascination.

Fleming has performed Mahler's Rückert Lieder quite often over the past decade and like so much of what she sings, has now really made them her own. As ever her attention to the text is intimate, multifaceted and multicoloured, but she also fed Mahler's music with a soaring sense of line and purpose. I think she's much more suited to Strauss temperamentally and vocally, but this was a very lovely performance.

Before this came the set a set of five Wolf songs from the Goethe Lieder which she bravely chose to open the concert with. These didn't suit at all. Fleming declaimed the text with minute detail but at the expense of long line, she never sang above a mezzo piano, and her use of portamento severely got in the way of the music. I usually don't mind and actually like this last aspect of her singing that offends some people so much, but here it really happened far too often for comfort.

Fleming has recorded a disc of music of this era already - and here we see her as a Klimt painting

Luckily things picked up after the interval. It's hard to imagine which other major international singer would programme Schoenberg in a song recital, and Fleming's two selections were revealed as beautiful grey pearls, Fleming finally singing with real freedom, a truly full bodied tone and passionate commitment. More like this please! I was reminded of her CD of Berg Excerpts with Levine (Marie, Lulu), her first big budget recording, one of her least known and one of her finest. (There is also a much more recent and truly exceptional reading of Berg's 7 Early Songs with Abbado that provides yet more evidence for the ideal match of singer of epoch.)

Zemlinsky's Dehmel songs are rather anonymous creations, brooding, darkly chromatic, ugly ducklings, well dispatched by Fleming, though she had to stop and cough heartily in between two songs, humorously encouraging the audience to follow suit. She was struggling with a cold she said, and quietly continued to clear her throat for the rest of the recital (I was sitting very close) - sometimes even snatched between the endless arching phrases in the Korngold songs - a wonder that she got through it, and only one note seemed slightly off kilter as a result.

The Korngold songs played to Fleming's strength of delivering an apparently endless line of yearning legato. They are schmaltzy but the famous Sterbelied from the op.14 Abschiedlieder suited perfectly, as did the rapt love song Was du mir bist ("dedicated... to his mother!" Fleming delighted in telling us) which Korngold recycled in his Suite for Piano left hand, two violins and cello, one of the most beautiful of all his slow movements.

Maciej Pikulski made a deft and sensitive partner, never covering the voice, and always supporting Fleming's rubato. He let Fleming take centre stage, and occasionally it might have been nice if he had seemed more of a collaborator than an accompanist, though his playing in the postlude to the final encore was poetic and beautiful.

(EDIT: Someone has videoed the encores and uploaded them to youtube so I have linked them in the text below. The fuzz of the audio quality allow the ear and brain to "fill in" what one expects in the details of the aural texture, and the sound is compressed giving a false sense of volume, so it maybe sounds a bit plusher than it really was, but it gives a good idea, and the soaring phrases I mentioned are ably captured. The first one has zoom noises, but the other two don't.)

In the encores we finally got some Strauss: Zueignung in a superb performance - this music is absolutely in her bones, and suits her so well - it's not just interpretively that things improve, but amazingly the sound of the voice - I think it probably has to do with muscle memory and relaxation. The same was true of all the pieces that she was more familiar with and has had in her repertoire for a while - the voice actually sounded fresher, more immediate and freer. I wished she had sung some more Strauss, rather than the Wolf or Zemlinsky perhaps, but Fleming has said herself that she doesn't like to repeat things, and is always wanting to try out new repertoire and new projects.

"We've had so much Sachertorte!" Fleming announced before her next encore: Delibes' Les filles de Cadix which was dispatched with shining vocalism, some of the finest I've heard from her over the last year (amazingly this is the 8th time I've seen her live since last year's Four Last Songs with Eschenbach at the RFH). Her legendary trills have largely deserted her along with the gleaming surface of the sound, but this was still vocalising to cherish, and a couple of phrases here soared like the classic Fleming we all know and love from the late 90s recordings. As she said just before, this was a new piece to her, and at one point she started singing the wrong verse, bailed out, made light of it, and completely got away with it - even getting a round of applause during the song. She was on charming form throughout the evening, bantering with the audience about her dress ("I realise it's a bit much. I just wanted you to get the Klimt connection" [see Intermezzo here for pictures]), and introducing each set of songs in the second half with some background information, something which I think is always appreciated and I wish more artists did. (Susan Graham did this in her recent Wigmore recital too).

Finally, Korngold's Marietta's Lied from Die Tote Stadt. This is a Fleming classic, and made a glorious end to a very good recital.

A lovely evening of lovely singing - I was worried in the Wolf that she was having an off day, but each selection she seemed to get stronger, and I really feel that the lieder recital is where her strengths now lie. She got a standing ovation and seemed quite genuinely touched.

Saturday 8 December 2012

Robert le Diable at the Royal Opera House.


Oh dear, oh dear. It turns out that Robert le Diable is a COLOSSAL waste of time, and I am absolutely mystified as to why the ROH would choose to mount a production of it. It's not as if this is one of those scores that is absolutely gorgeous on record, but fails to make convincing drama on stage: this is one of the most consistently banal and abjectly uninspired scores I think I have ever had the displeasure of hearing in an opera house. I know, I know, I should have checked before I went, usually I like to prepare, but sometimes it's good to just take a risk.

The opera opens with an overture that simply sounds unfinished - as if a third of the instruments aren't playing their parts: skeletal, illogical, bare, dull. There follows the most palid brindisi I've ever heard (is it called a brindisi if it's French opera? Whatever.) I sat agog as banality followed banality, an unremitting stream of mild bilge. Act II opens a dull aria for love sick Isabelle, then a bland and utterly unconvincing "ecstatic" cabaletta as she receives a letter for him. And so on for the first interminable 75 minutes, not a single moment of interest, not one melody, idea or motive stuck in the mind, nothing developed, no texture or vocal line approaching the interesting, let alone beautiful. What is worse, is that the music is not just thin on ideas, it's also aurally "thin": pages and pages of dessicated, empty score, the orchestra barely congealing into a whole.

Laurent Pelly's production tries its best with this aimless, soulless mess. He takes it as seriously as he can, but when the drama is so ludicrous and trite, and the music so lacking in tension and dramatic thrust, what is a director to do? The very substance of the work is cliché and contrivance.

His usual talent for excellent design and visual congruence with the score was not forthcoming (unless it was in the ironic sense mentioned below). The setting is fundamentally mediaeval, though it's very stylised, and even cartoony in places - this is not evocative music, and I wonder if Pelly's primary colours, card board cut out landscapes and skeletal buildings are in some way meant to be a reflection of the sound of the score (even unconsciously). Usually I am a huge fan of Pelly's wit and soft Gallic charm, but there wasn't enough for him to latch on to here, and he's not in his home territory of comedy. Characters are constantly addressing the audience, and Pelly does his old trick of making the Chorus quickly turn their heads to the audience every time they sing. There's a lot of pat moralising in the libretto, and probably Pelly is trying to make it addressed to us the audience, but it just didn't work. I felt sorry for him though - what on earth was he meant to do with this bloated corpse?

Act III picks up somewhat, and we get a brilliantly choreographed ballet (by Lionel Hoch) of sexy undead nuns that have been called from the grave to seduce Robert, though by that stage I no longer cared about the why. The music for this section is again amazingly un-apt for the subject matter. In Act IV we finally get some music that at least holds the attention, even if it isn't very good, and Isabelle gets a pretty aria. Notable is a bizarre unaccompanied trio which is also bad music but arrestingly strange. Act 5 reverts to total banality, though the choruses and idiom become slightly fuller. In case you haven't noticed, I'm really finding it difficult to make myself continue to write about it.

The singing was quite good. I have banged the Bryan Hymel drum rather loudly on this blog, after what was the best Rusalka Prince that I've ever seen, and a decent stab at Enée, and here he was more than respectable. I think French doesn't suit him very well as it does funny things to his tone (it becomes covered and swallowed in the high reaches), but Robert is a role with several high Ds (!!!) in it, and I would not for a moment have imagined that he would be able to handle these. It's a relentlessly high part requiring great solidity and stability, which are his strengths, but he did seem a little taxed here though I find it difficult to think of many tenors who wouldn't be. Acting wise he did his best in this hammy role.

As Alice, Marina Poplavskaya sung the best I have ever heard her. For the first time I wasn't completely mystified by her continued employment by top opera houses. She has about five gorgeously full notes in the middle voice that have a mezzo like depth and colouration, and she is able to integrate this well with her lower range. The problem is her top which sounds like it's coming from a different throat and body. In the past when I've seen her she's been all over the place pitch wise, and displayed significant spread above the stave, but here these things were both impressively under control for her, and nothing she sang was actively offensive. But she does this horrible blatantly unsupported pianissimo in high lying passages all the time, which is so fluttery that she finds it difficult to maintain air flow, let alone a regular vibrato. It's amazing that she continues to do it, when the result is so embarrassingly inconsistent. I really do wonder whether she is really a mezzo - along with the already mentioned characteristics, like mezzos, she has a much easier time above the stave when the notes are loud (though relative to other big name mezzo sopranos, let alone sopranos she is still extremely unstable here). This voice is a bundle of contradictions though one occasionally feels that its easy size and those middle notes suggest that she could be much better than she is. The paradox exemplified in one note: there was one absolutely gorgeous sustained tone she sung in Act IV, straight in the middle of her sweet spot range wise, which was gleamingly rounded, unforced and deliciously dark. But after five seconds of truly golden sound, the vibrato wavered and the next five second were choked, wobbly and stressed. She got some genuine cheers at the curtain but icily barely acknowledged them. I remain baffled by her as an artist and performer.

The controversy with the role of Isabelle has been well documented elsewhere, and I won't go into it, other than that I feel very strongly for Jennifer Rowley who has been horribly treated in this whole episode. Patrizia Ciofi, whisked in at the last minute, also gave the best performance I have ever seen her give - making the voice sound lighter and fresher than it usually is, but also her legato was effortlessly smooth and controlled in her aforementioned Act IV aria, the vibrato narrow and attractive, and it was probably the musical highlight of the evening. The bottom of the range is atrophied (no chest notes, no volume, relying on the "Gheorghiu cover" for low notes to have some sort of presence which of course doesn't work), and the top is slightly hoarse, with the very top notes uncomfortably intense and slightly police siren like, but mostly I was surprised by what a good sound she was making, given that this is not at all a naturally beautiful or particularly distinctive voice. Quite impressive. She is an unsettling presence on stage I've always found, but she was very good here.

John Relyea, not a name I'd heard before, has a quite brilliant true bass voice that is large, very dark, steely, extremely even toned and very well produced. It's not a terribly warm sound, but his technique is quite formidable and he can sing high with apparent ease - I'm sure that he will make a significant Wagner singer in the near future. Maybe he'll be hired for the upcoming Parsifal? Or maybe he's not singing Wagner yet. By some distance the most impressive voice on stage and he reminded me quite a lot of a young Samuel Ramey.

The supporting cast were largely excellent, especially Jean Francois Borras as Raimbut. Conductor Daniel Oren did absolutely nothing to sell the score, and drew an unexcited, mediocre sound from the orchestra.

Avoid. Despite decent-ish singing, this opera is a complete waste of everyone's time.