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Saturday 16 February 2013

CD Review: Dutilleux Correspondances with Barbara Hannigan

Deutsche Grammophon
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
Esa-Pekka Salonen
Barbara Hannigan (soprano)
Ansi Kartunnen (cello)

Late Dutilleux can be disconcerting. Of course Correspondances (2003) was composed earlier, but the similarities to the already long released Le Temps l'horlage (2007-09) are perhaps a little too close to comfort for fans of Dutilleux's music who will know the later piece - already the opening number "Gong (1)" reminds us quite a bit of the later song cycle (My thoughts on Le Temps l'horlage are here). The second song "Danse Cosmique" is basically the same song as "Envirez Vous" in Le Temps and in the interlude we get an accordion, quite novel in Dutilleux, but again a big feature of Le Temps. The third song "A Slava et Galina" is a letter from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife the late Galina Vishnevskaya who hid him when he had been denounced by the state in the mid 70s. This is a rather backward looking number - quite romantic at its opening, then more agitated, recalling late Ravel or one of the love melodies of Messiaen. The opening of "Gong (2)" stands out as a particularly ravishing orchestral canvass even by Dutilleux's standards - his characteristic seductive misty string clusters, glissandoing and blending with muted brass, low flutes, the accordion, and of course the gong once more. The last song "De Vincent a Théo" (the text from a letter from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Théo) starts with a gossamer legato line for the soprano underscored by many of the elements present in the previous song, but lighter, more transparent, the jungle's canopy to the previous song's densely humid forest floor. It ends in an airily ecstatic climax, floating rather than soaring as in the comparable climax in Le Temps l'horlage, entirely in keeping with the mood of the piece. Though the similarities between the two pieces are many and striking, Correpondances is the dreamier cycle, Le Temps l'horlage the quirkier, more wide ranging and more dramatic perhaps. Both are minor Dutilleux, but as with all music by this most recherché composer, lovely to have nonetheless.

Barbara Hannigan sings it with a light purity that must be close to what the composer intended as he composed it originally for Dawn Upshaw, though Hannigan uses far more straight tones than Upshaw and is a smaller voice overall. This is a beautiful and committed reading, far better vocally than the recent South Bank recital I saw from her, Hannigan's girlish tone picking delicately over the text and supporting the line admirably.

The Cello Concerto "...Tout un monde lointain..." of 1970, one of the most searching, beautiful, challenging and masterful works for the instrument of the last half of the 20th century is one of Dutilleux's greatest masterpieces. The assurance with which Dutilleux uses his eclectic materials is quite astonishing in a period of music where everything seemed to have crumbled - the logic he manages to imbue his musical landscape with, which hovers between tonality and atonality, between his sensual French forebears and the avant guard, is a wondrous thing to experience. The classic recording that Rostropovich made at the height of his powers along with the equally brilliant Lutoslawski concerto has never been equalled for beauty, virtuosity, or unstinting sense of purpose, and though cellist Anssi Karttunen is a perfectly respectable interpreter, ably getting round the notes of this fiendish score (certainly one of the very hardest ever composed for cello) and would be wonderful live no doubt, he is not the visionary artist that Rostropovich was in his prime. It is unfortunate to compare performances like this, but for anyone who is interested in this piece, I couldn't in good conscience recommend this recording without mentioning the classic one. As an aside, there is one wonderful performance on youtube which comes very close to Rostropovich: the brilliant young cellist Xavier Phillips who equals Rostropovich's intensity and assurance.

Finally we get The Shadows of Time (1997) a piece "about" memories of the War relating to children; the central movement is dedicated to the memory of Anne Frank. If we ignore this program for a moment and listen to the music we hear a lot of Messiaen again - contrasting blocks of bold colour which hardly relate or develop - but also interspersed with this a stormily theatrical method of moving forward governed by dramatic gestures and explosive contrasts, particularly in the second movement, "Ariel Malefique". The children's voices that lead the third movement manage to avoid kitsch, but it's the least interesting music in the piece. The interlude is possibly the most beautiful and unexpected section, the haze of the string chords focussing into genuine warmth, with the same note repeatedly intoned, somehow relating to the "tuning section" of the violin concerto, before we return to the flow of events as we heard them before. The last movement sounds like a misty jazz standard from the '40s - 'Round Midnight perhaps: is the ambiguous title "dominant blue" referring to this? Once again, I'm not convinced that this is one of Dutilleux's best pieces  -there's little here that we haven't heard before from him done better - but there's plenty that is very beautiful, and as always it's immaculately crafted and worth hearing.

I must say that I've never heard Dutilleux's music sound bad in any performance I've heard - it seems to be so thoroughly well composed, clearly imagined and well notated that it's difficult to get wrong, provided the musicians are up to the challenge of playing it. I can only say that the orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen's guidance plays admirably, giving full thrift to Dutilleux's palette of colours. A bit of a cop out but I'm at a loss otherwise.

If you're new to Dutilleux I would recommend the cello concerto (with Rostropovich), the violin concerto (with Stern) or the string quartet before sampling this CD, but this is a nice disc with the first commercial recording of Correspondances and so well worth acquiring for those who are interested.

Wednesday 13 February 2013

CD Review: Kaufmann Wagner

What a gorgeous CD. Kaufmann has recorded quite a few Wagner excerpts before on previous recordings, and in some regards they seem to be the tenor roles which suit best: the richly beautiful baritonal timbre, interpretive nuance and psychologising and intensity of his acting all are ideal in this repertoire. The one thing that I have reservations about is that the voice, while timbrally perfect - heroic, manful, beautiful, even - is not actually of heldentenor size. It's basically an exceptionally dark lyric spinto tenor with very great stamina and a superlative technique. On recordings he sounds absolutely wonderful, but there is simply no question of him being an adequate Siegfried in the opera house.

On record though - what a dream - despite many other promising talents, there is not a single tenor singing today who could hope to match this recording. The voice that comes to mind most readily in Wagnerian history as a comparison is Ludwig Suthaus who had a similar timbre, though was a bigger voice with brighter high notes. The level of artistry though is similar and both are not afraid to sing truly quietly, with Kaufmann daring even bigger extremes in mood and colour than almost anyone I've heard before in this repertoire. Some will find the top too covered and "swallowed" especially in quiet passages, but this is largely a taste thing - it's certainly not a very Italianate sound, though his legato is quite exceptional.

Kaufmann's Siegmund is a relatively known quantity now - the recent Met performances, with the Met Broadcast and subsequent DVD release, as well as the newly released Gergiev studio/live recording - and it may be the most obvious fit of all the roles presented here as it's such a low part (even Keenlyside was scheduled to sing it at one point!). We get the section starting "Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater", and in this charged passage the general darkness of the sound and flashing brilliance convince entirely as the damaged Wälsung. His "Wälse!"s are as thrilling as you would expect and I very much hope to catch him live in this role at some point.

I have stated my reservations about his attempting Siegfried already, though this is a wonderfully detailed account of the lyrical Act II Siegfried monologue - if anything maybe even too sensitive for the rough young Siegfried. Lohengrin he has sung on stage and has recorded this excerpt in its truncated final version before too. We get the whole breadth of Kaufmann's artistry here, and it seems to be quite ideal for him - he lightens the voice admirably, caressing the line with uncommonly tender care, while not sacrificing in any way the heft of the climax. That he's unafraid and able to make Wagner singing comparable to lied singing, thus playing to his strengths, is part of what makes him such an interesting interpreter in this repertoire. Parsifal does not appear on this recording but is also ideal for the baritonal sound that Kaufmann has - excerpts were previously recorded on the German opera album. Missing too is Tristan, who I would say would be a better fit for him than Siegfried, tessitura wise and temperamentally, but is still a huge stretch at this stage in terms of stamina and vocal power - there are plans to sing it in a few years but I wonder if it's really feasible. What we do have that relates to Tristan und Isolde is the Wesendonck Lieder, a song cycle which I love very much. It is very unusual to hear these songs done by a tenor, but Kaufmann sings them so well that one almost forgets the soprano/mezzo ideal that one has in ones memory. These songs are not as tortured as the opera which they were incorporated into, and Kaufmann never makes them something they're not, taking a less directly emotional approach than he might if this was an operatic role. Again it is the interpretive subtlety that sets him apart from other tenors with similarly accomplished technical apparatus or beauty of sound (both of which are already rare enough in themselves!).

Tannhäuser is less obviously a role for him as it sits so relentlessly high and is so heavy. I'm sure he could sing it, but I didn't love his recent Bacchus in Ariadne which has similar requirements. However, the excerpt here reveals a surprising ability to lift the centre of gravity of the voice - paring it down and brightening it so that it doesn't for one moment sound effortful: the voice sounds very different to the Siegmund excerpt, and the result is very beautiful indeed. Walther from Die Meistersinger also lies very high and again conventional wisdom says that someone can sing both this role and Siegmund equally satisfactorily. The Act I excerpt heard here "Am Stillen Herd" again thwarts expectation and suggests that Walther would also work beautifully, though possibly (?) the tessitura would be difficult to maintain over an evening. Kaufmann has only done it once live - in concert performance at the Edinburgh Festival in 2006, so maybe it's also not the kind of acting role that he would enjoy.

There is a feature of this disc which is basically always a problem on Wagner excerpts CDs - the excerpts all finish with a jarring lack of finality - the feeling of "bleeding chunks" has never felt so painful.

The voice is very forwardly placed in the mix as is traditional on recital discs. Support from the Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin is generally very good, a few errant moments of tuning aside (some are surprisingly obvious), but generally the sound is very full and rich. The last degree of care and special beauty is missing, but this is an artist excerpts disc and it's not necessarily the place to expect the most detail in the orchestral playing, and Donald Runnicles is a more than adequate partner for Kaufmann's art.

All in all this is a very enjoyable album and that must be recommended wholeheartedly to any fans of Wagner or even those who merely love great voices. This review is mostly uninteresting because there's so little to criticise!

Friday 8 February 2013

DVD Review: La Traviata 2009 Renée Fleming Royal Opera House

Opus Arte

Violetta: Renée Fleming
Alfredo: Jospeh Calleja
Germont: Thomas Hampson

Conductor: Antoni Pappano
Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus
Director: Richard Eyre

As with most Traviatas, this DVD is all about the soprano, and this version was surely filmed almost entirely for Fleming's sake. Fleming's singing of the Italian repertoire has been the most controversial aspect of her very broad ranging career, some complaining that her singing in this repertoire is fussy, mannered and stylistically wrong, but this is a very personal and individual performance from her that offers a great deal and was ecstatically reviewed at the time.

Richard Eyre's production is quite traditional and very adaptable to the strengths of the soprano which is probably why it has lasted so long at the ROH. He returned especially for this revival as he is a fan of Fleming, and as a result the direction is extremely detailed and there are countless moments of subtle but brilliant insight. Act I is the plainest and the set feels a bit cramped for a party and it isn't nearly seemy enough, but Eyre effectively and convincingly traverses the insane pace of Verdi's exposition. Fleming brings an unusual elegance, glamour and nobility to the role that is quite magnetic. I was actually surprised at how well Fleming acts in this Act - usually she is merely adequate when being happy on stage - she's generally much, much better at acting the bittersweet, the wistful, the sad, and even the angry parts of an opera, which is lucky, because that's basically what full lyric sopranos do for a living. Still the acting becomes quite artificial here especially when she's thinking about singing the right notes during "Sempre Libera" which taxes her enormously, noticeably more so than it had done in her previous outings of this role. In an interview she has said: "I don't think anyone enjoys singing this... I don't know a single soprano who likes it... it's not written well for the voice." She certainly gets through it just fine, but it's not quite as effortless as we're used to from her (but then we must remember how astonishing that she is singing this well at 50). Calleja is at his weakest here too and seems not at all engaged dramatically. Luckily they both warm up in the following acts.

Act II is also conventionally staged, but again there are lots of lovely details of characterisation and points of telling interaction between the characters. Violetta's anger and panicked outburst in Act II seems to surprise her even more than it does Germont: she isn't aware of the strength of her own feelings until this moment, and this threat to her relationship unexpectedly and explosively forces her to face up to her own mortality - the crisis we realise has been bubbling beneath the surface for some time. It's very powerfully presented. Fleming's "Dite alla giovine" is truly exceptional, and now that she's in her home ground dramatically, the emotion feels completely genuine for the first time. Interestingly Fleming's Violetta is very forthright and far more upstanding than we usually see - Fleming's view is that Violetta is popular because she has such strong moral integrity and this certainly shows in her portrayal. Traditional productions such as this do tend to ignore the sleazy aspects of the story, going with the "courtesans were immensely cultured women" line, which suits Fleming's character and attitude, but it's clear that its only part of the story, and a sentimental dishonesty too.

Despite some questionable acting, Thomas Hampson manages to be an extremely unpleasant Germont - he's not just misguided and oblivious to the seriousness of his actions as he is often portrayed - here he merely plays dumb, and is otherwise manipulative, callous, cold, violent, entirely self serving and without remorse. Vocally Hampson is very accomplished, though by his own high standards seems not entirely comfortable as it's not really his fach, but he is of course a very talented singer and is more than capable of singing the part.

Fleming's Act III is perhaps not surprisingly her strongest, and it's simply heartbreaking. I can't think of any other currently performing soprano who could deliver this much pathos vocally in this scene. The beauty of the voice, so sensitively coloured and frail, is quite miraculous. Violetta's passionate outbursts are huge releases of energy which we see she must recover from, every show of strength has its immediate cost - all this Fleming manages to put into the music without endangering the line. I would say that 2009 is the last year of Fleming's prime - the last year where real feats of coloratura are still possible, the support remains absolutely rock solid, and her trade mark timbre is still full and beautiful in every register. But it's clear that the voice isn't quite as pristine as in her 2006 Los Angeles La Traviata DVD, and certainly less so than her 2004 Met Traviata (of which bootlegs easily available online for free, and there are clips on youtube). Still, much of the vocal beauty that she is famed for remains on this DVD, and there is great sensitivity to the text, maybe more so than ever in some key moments, the result of hard work on this with Pappano.

Joseph Calleja has an extraordinary tenor that becomes firmer, more secure and more even the higher he sings. Very unusual. The vibrato is very fast and narrow which works well up high, but this intense quality is taken down into the low voice which as a result can become slightly unstable and unpredictable. This is exactly the right repertoire for him though. His acting varies between simply walking the part, and quite acceptable (especially when he's angry in Act II) but it's clear that this is a vocally led performance from him.

Pappano leads a thrilling and nuanced account of the score, bursting with colour, and he carries the whole cast brilliantly along. This is the sort of repertoire that he excels in and he's clearly having a great time. There's a very interesting DVD extra which is an interview between Pappano and Fleming, which can be viewed on youtube.

Here's a clip of the very ending that someone's cheekily filmed in a cinema (hence weird framing!)

Peter Konwitschny's La Traviata at ENO


Visually, this is one of the most striking productions I've ever seen. It opens on opulent red theatre curtains which are drawn aside to reveal - more red theatre curtains. The entire set is comprised of layers of curtains, and a single chair. But all is not what it seems - first we realise that it is only beautiful lighting that created the grandiose beauty of the opening image - the curtains are not made of velvet but rather a flimsy see-through fabric. As we progress through Act I, they constantly billow forward and we observe that they are flimsier still than we imagined when we see that they have vertical black lines that create a trompe-l'œil effect. Later, in Act II, the back drop curtain is lit only from the side making it look ragged and soiled, and at the end of the act when everything goes wrong for Violetta the curtains collapse one by one and are dragged off stage by the crawling chorus. For the final scene the stage is empty save for an unilluminated black curtain at the back of the stage and the debris of the previous night's party. Violetta doesn't die on stage but merely wanders out of her spotlight into the dark oblivion of the curtain.

Werner Kmetitsch, Oper Graz
This is not Corinne Winters!
Violetta's dress in Act I mirrors the curtains and in colour and trompe-l'œil effect too - clearly the curtains are a metaphor for her descent but they also signify that her world is a theatre. Twice Germont and Alfredo appear in the stalls audience observing her with the rest of us, most tellingly in the final scene where Violetta is alone in her oversized spotlight - although it created a lot of fuss and distraction in the real audience, Konwitschny is underlining not just her lonelyness in death, but that even her death is a performance, watched from a distance by those closest too her. She shares no genuine intimacy with Alfredo even when they're happy (though this may have been due to poor acting). Alfredo is a nerdy loser, awkwardly at odds with the hedonism of society, but he is completely unable to see clearly any aspect of his own situation or Violetta's, but he offers an escape for Violetta and she takes it. Germont is overbearing and sentimental, though not as cruel as he might have been portrayed. Violetta's objectification reaches an apogee in Act II scene II when Alfredo and the Barone gamble for the right her, talking about her to each other when she's literally under their noses, throwing their cards down on her broken body. The scene is cut, and we go to the final scene which is played out conventionally until the end: Alfredo runs away into the audience when Violetta's suggests that he should find another woman and be happy.

Most of the action that I haven't mentioned is quite conventionally staged in terms of character interactions so no one need fear that they won't understand or that this production is too concept driven to be recognisable as La Traviata. Lots of the novel ideas here I have seen before in other productions - Germont dragging along the talked about younger sister (though here she is disturbingly young for marriage), Violetta injecting some unknown substance after Alfredo says you should look after yourself (though here it's administered by the doctor), and various Brechtian tropes that seem incongruous and without referent in the milieu of the ENO in 2013.

The singing is generally decent. Corinne Winters makes a very solid stab at the famously impossible vocal demands of the role of Violetta and her coloratura at the end of Act I was surprisingly nimble. She inserts the unwritten Eb with confidence. The other two acts seem more comfortable still and she whips out a very natty trick of very quickly and smoothly fining down her tone from forte to pianissimo quite a few times. There's not much variation in the vocal colour though, and whether happy or sad, partying or dying, the timbre basically sounds the same. The direction is very physically demanding, but it causes her to over-act, and I wonder whether the staging was too abstract to feel fully engaged with the character. Or perhaps unrealistic "theatrical" acting is what Konwitschny was asking for as part of the concept, but it felt a bit alienating and I wasn't much moved by any aspect of anyone's performance. This is a chilly version of the opera, but presumably we're meant to feel something...

Ben Johnson's Alfredo is very awkward and self absorbed, again devoid of genuine feeling - all my analysis above of the opera was based on acting that was clearly meant to demonstrate these attitudes rather than really embody them. As I say I can't be sure that this wasn't Konwitschny's intention as I haven't seen his other productions. Anthony Michaels-Moore Germont is played along similar lines. Vocally both men are very good without being outstanding - very secure, and solid throughout their ranges, but also a little monochromatic.

Michael Hofstetter conducts too much of the score as if we're listening to a musical box, and the moments of high drama fail to register as serious events. This might have been intentional to match the staging's artificiality and emotional reserve of course - I found myself questioning all these things all the time, but ultimately I have to trust my emotions and say that I wasn't that stirred musically this evening. I would say that the main strength of this production is visual, and if you can get past the lack of crinolines and fussy décor, it is a rather simply and unsentimentally told version of La Traviata. I'm not sure that sentimentality doesn't make up a large part of the appeal of La Traviata usually, but it's interesting to see what's left when that aspect is stripped away. Well worth seeing.

An Observation

22 of the last 50 opera productions I have seen have had one or more chairs thrown in them.

It is my pet hate in opera direction.

Thursday 7 February 2013

Joyce DiDonato's Drama Queens at the Barbican


The recentish glut of albums of baroque ultra obscurities continues to be a mixed blessing. Cecilia Bartoli reglamorised the idea of baroque coloratura for the masses in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but hers is an instrument of unique timbre and peculiar but spellbinding musicianship - the mere sound is often enough to carry what is sometimes very clearly second or third rate material straight to the heart. I have my own theories on why she continues to plough this furrow, but she remains the best at it.

I found this to be a very mixed evening. Despite immaculate playing and clear commitment and enthusiasm from all, the repertoire presented here was tryingly slight (excepting the Handel arias). It entertains well enough moment by moment, but there's no sustenance to be found here, no lasting impact on the ears or soul. Of course this sort of evening needs a soloist of stature and character to carry it, and unfortunately, for me on this occasion, Joyce DiDonato came up short.

The tonal quality of the voice is quite "thin", with a very fast, narrow, brittle vibrato, attractive middle and bright top. In music where the voice is not supported by a wash of orchestral sound this thinness becomes a problem: the sound feels undernourished and we hear every defect. The main issue I think is that the airflow is not steady, so the vibrato has lots of little bumps and blips in it and becomes especially unstable when singing quietly and also when singing high. I've just looked back to the previous times when I have reviewed DiDonato on this blog and find that I have written almost the same things. It's a voice that's easy to like but hard to love: there's nothing to be intoxicated by, no hidden surfaces in the sound, no bloom, no perfume.

Like Bartoli, DiDonato's coloratura is heavily aspirated which can sound fine on recordings if the listener doesn't mind it, but in the concert hall the sound becomes muddy, inherently limited in volume and tone, and downright unpleasant in the low register. Her intonation is basically good, though larger intervals can pose problems. I have heard her live much better than here (for example in The ROH La Cenerentola and her Wigmore Hall recital), and part of it must surely have been the poor acoustics of the Barbican, but I was sitting in top price seats (11th row of the stalls) and I was struggling to find positives to focus on. I'm willing to believe it was a more satisfying experience closer to the stage, and also that she perhaps was having an off night. She's a fun personality and fun to watch as she seemed to be having a great time on stage along with the players, not to mention the drooping grandeur of her OTT Vivienne Westwood dress (not dissimilar from the ones that the designer has made for Renée Fleming) but this was a disappointing evening from her.

The playing of Il Complesso Barocco was buoyant, fresh and nicely shaped. The leader Dmitry Sinkovsky revealed an absolutely gorgeous sense of line and phrasing in his solos and his Vivaldi concerto "Per Pisendel" RV242 was sensationally good. A fantastic violinist who I hadn't heard of before.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

DVD review: Pelléas et Mélisande 1992 WNO Boulez

Deutsche Grammophon

Mélisande: Alison Hagley
Pelléas: Neil Archer
Golaud: Donald Maxwell
Arkel: Kenneth Cox

Director: Peter Stein
Conductor: Pierre Boulez
Welsh National Opera

This production was important in its time and received good reviews and continues to be highly regarded amongst lovers of this most recherche score. I thought I better check it out.

Alison Hagley's Mélisande is very youthful and natural both vocally and dramatically, and she gives a pleasingly simple, innocent and other worldly performance. The voice is attractive, fragile, sweet and slightly brittle sounding in climaxes and so is in some ways ideal. The other clear stand out is Kenneth Cox's wonderfully orotund Arkel, absolutely solid and ripe throughout his range. Wonderful singing. Neil Archer (Pelléas) and Donald Maxwell (Golaud) both sing their music very respectably indeed, one can hardly complain, but neither is very dramatically committed which is particularly hard to take with so many close ups.

Peter Stein's production is a decent staging if you like your productions vanilla and your singers to be accurate rather than having strong personalities of their own. The costumes strongly suggest the late 19th century, as Golaud looks like Debussy and Pelléas like Oscar Wilde, but it obviously remains a fantasy setting with set designs that are slightly abstract, shadowy and plain but recognisably what is written in the score. It's not at all interventionist, and doesn't try to explain or elucidate the symbolism or elliptical drama too much which is fine, but don't expect any easy insights. It basically works well, but didn't draw me in that much, though I think this also might have been to do with the conducting.

Though I have heard Boulez in plenty of Second Viennese stuff and contemporary music, surprisingly this is the first time I have ever heard him conduct something tonal that wasn't by Stravinsky (a composer for whom his conducting was made). His approach here is icy and precise, but there's no bouquet, no aroma, no seduction, not enough sickness, and though it's very clear that this is what he wants, in this piece it just seems inappropriate to me. He also can't sustain a line or anything slow which is a bit of a problem in this score. Maybe some will like his absolute eschewal of any sentimentality, but for me he also strips the piece of half of its genuine sentiment and atmosphere too.

Something to bear in mind: the filming is oddly antiquated considering this was filmed in 1992. There's a lot of grainyness and bright colours bleed when the camera moves quickly.

P.S. Most gratuitous use of animals ever award goes to this production where a live sheep is onstage for all of four seconds for Yniold's solo scene. Great.

Kasper Holten's new Eugene Onegin at the Royal Opera House


This month operatically inclined eyes in London are focussed on this production of Eugene Onegin, Kasper Holten's first with the company since joining, the clearest indication so far about what the future may hold for the Royal Opera House over the next decade or so - not only will he direct a lot of the major productions, but he will select directors too, so a lot rides on his tastes. I don't think anyone would be so crass as to say that this opera production will provide definitive answers, but interest is nevertheless very high.

Almost immediately we realise that this is Regie theatre, albeit of a mild kind - costumes and sets look largely "period" where "period" means "generically 19th century". The curtain opens onto silence, the mature Tatyana rushing into an empty room, searching for a letter. When she reads it, the music starts - the music is her memories flooding back to her. Onegin enters and we later learn that this prelude occurs in Gremin's palace between Scenes 6 and 7 (i.e. after Onegin has shown up again and sent his letter to Tatyana and before the final confrontation) - the opera then is all the flash backs of these two characters.

Throughout the production, Holten changes how these memories are presented - sometimes it is simply the characters singing their lines with essentially naturalistic acting, sometimes there is a (silent, younger) double also on stage who does the actions as the mature singer merely watches them presumably in a state of recall, sometimes it becomes even more unnaturalistic, and the younger double dances, illustrating the words of the singer, and sometimes the younger and older Tatyana actually interact. It all feels basically logically cogent in that it is never confusing, but I think the brain finds it hard to adjust to different modes of naturalism/unnaturalism in the same play without becoming slightly emotionally disengaged.

The result is interesting rather than moving. It took me a while to work out why. What all this intervention does, well meaning and sensitively done though it is, is that it changes the very finely tuned emotional arcs and tensions of the original story - all this dreaming and meta story telling changes the dynamics of every scene and it becomes hard to actually engage with the characters in a direct way. So for instance, Tatyana sings her letter scene looking at her silent younger self, observing and narrating what she must have been feeling at every moment. So it stops being a searingly intimate moment of personal revelation and an agonising leap of faith, and becomes instead a narrated recollection of a doomed moment of youthful folly. More damagingly, in the passionate climax, the singer Tatyana fantasizes about Onegin accepting her entreaty, and we see her dancer double wrapping herself round the double Onegin - logically we know that this is not really happening, but emotionally what registers is a collapse of the sexual tension as it is consummated in front of us. This is what I mean by changing the emotional arcs - the story loses its drive when these tensions are subverted in front of our eyes, and the result is a lack of emotional investment and then a loss of interest. This is just one example of this occurring in this production, but the same thing happens again and again. As another example, Lensky sings his aria whilst the older Onegin observes and then reaches out and hugs him as an act of wish fulfilment. Although this does nicely suggest the subtle homoerotic elements of the text, it also presents us with the negation of the emotional line that propels this scene forwards - the audience is at this stage always desperate for their reconciliation and this is what creates the tension and pathos of the scene. If we are given this visually, even if intellectually we understand that it is not happening "in real life" in the play, emotionally there is a collapse of tension because our wish is fulfilled.

It's well know that this is one of Holten's favourite operas, but in making these audience member wishes come true on stage, it negates the power of the drama. This is the crux of the production's problems I think.

In Holten's picture, Onegin's main characteristic is that he's young. Gone is the haughtiness and repression of traditional stagings, replaced instead by upturned collars, constant embarrassed faces* and hands in pockets. I'm not sure it worked. Yes he's a young character, but is that his most important or interesting feature? Is it the most expressive one? Is it enough for this complex character to only be that? Is it the best choice for this singer's talents, at this point in his career? It's not altogether obvious why Tatyana falls for him either, other than that when she dreams to the peasant songs in Scene I, she LITERALLY dreams of Onegin himself (it's acted out above the chorus, as a dream within a dream) so that later when she says, "it's him!", she means it literally.

Everyone is colour coded - Onegin wears a shabby blue velvet jacket, Lensky wears a greyish blue suit, Olga a mint green dress. Tatyana wears red (for passion), but it seems a bit incongruent that a shy introvert would choose to dress so boldly - yes it's a metaphor, but surely congruent characterisation has to come before symbolism! In the later two scenes in Gremin's palace she wears an icy white gown, but her petticoats which peek through remain red to suggest the passionate heart still beating beneath cooler, more mature exterior.

Despite my complaints about the effect of the directorial choices, mostly the direction is very detailed and it seems that Holten has thought about it all with great care. But there are clumsy moments. When Onegin and Lensky enter Olga and Lensky hold hands and have a little intimate moment. Twenty seconds later Onegin asks without irony which one Tatyana is. Often characters will walk offstage only to come on again immediately. The peasants stroll into the house unbidden whenever they have a song to sing. The set remains largely the same throughout, with projections layered on top that vary the atmosphere, but it feels rigid and unyielding in crowd scenes. One large scale directional decision is to split the action not into the traditional three acts, but into two parts instead: Scenes 1-4 (100 minutes) and Scenes 5-7 (50 minutes). It feels very long, and Tchaikovsky's music is dramatically constructed on too intimate a scale to support these massive durations.

One directorial choice that did ring true was Holten's decision to make Olga a much darker character than the one that is usually presented. Here she is not that interested in Lensky - their beautiful duet, traditionally the only unbridled happy emotion in the piece, was here reinterpreted as a one sided infatuation - when Olga sings "promised to each other since birth", it's clear that she feels trapped and unhappy. A painful and cruel bit of staging this, that really shocked and hit home. She is also very interested in and excited by Onegin, and so Lensky's complaints don't seem like the oversensitive insecurity that it is usually interpreted as. Lensky is a much less overwrought character as a result - less Werther, more Masetto.

Another shocker - after Gremin's paean to Tatyana's goodness, (and surprising knowledge of and anger at Onegin's transgressions) he bursts in to witness the final scene, and it's far from clear what the outcome will be for Tatyana, who collapses with her books as Onegin wanders listlessly away. Bleak and far from expected. But still not moving!

Musically I thought things mirrored the staging - everything is very competently thought out and considered, but the results are far from passionate. The two are obviously not unlinked as singers have to be inspired by the staging, but there's a reserve in everyone's performance that bespeaks a lack of spiritual engagement. Robin Ticciati's conducting is an intimate and sensitive affair, but feels a bit careful and a little too tentative to support the longer line of the harmony. He also doesn't linger or indulge himself, and while this brings a freshness, it also rushes over some of the scores most touching moments, and I yearned for a bit more romance and schmerz.

As Tatyana, Krassimira Stoyanova has all the notes and is a very good technician. The top is rather covered, but is accurate, and her pleasingly dark low notes are the result of some serious engagement of her chest register, not at all common in lyric sopranos. Being Bulgarian, she speaks perfect Russian and inflects the text nicely, but the voice doesn't have that last degree of specialness that would make this a truly memorable performance. Her acting is good, and she manages to convince as the young Tatyana.

Simon Keenlyside is also very good vocally, and of course technically he's a master, though he also seems somehow not in his element - I didn't feel that he was that engaged with his character, and it showed not just in the physical acting, but also in his vocal acting, which was rather unspecific and bland: not usually words you can apply to Keenlyside.

Elena Maximova's very dark voiced Olga will split opinion I think - the chest tones are formidable, but the sound is not for me very attractive overall. Pavol Breslik sings Lensky with excellent technique, but there's no excitement in the voice, partly because the top is too covered and the sound rather small. Kathleen Wilkinson's Filipyevna and Diana Montague's Larina are both acceptably sung and unremarkably acted. Everyone else falls into the same category (though I did like Jihoon Kim's rich voiced Zaretsky). In both the final dress and this the first night, the chorus frequently fell out of time with the orchestra, and generally seem a bit uncomfortable - it could be the language or it could be Ticciati's fast speeds.

On the one hand I want to say that it's not that bad, and is a coherent, thoughtful piece of Regie that is well sung and played. But on the other hand, surely an Onegin that doesn't move needs to be classified as a disaster, and we need to expect more of voices than mere accuracy. Some will no doubt find much to admire here, and it is thought provoking, but for me the concept, while clever, negates the emotion of the piece and without that, it ends up being a rather uninvolving night at the theatre.

*a friend humorously (and accurately) compared him to Tim from The Office.