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Monday 27 May 2013

Falstaff at Glyndebourne


all photos (c) Tristram Kenton

This revival of Glyndebourne's 2009 production of Falstaff I found to be a mixed bag. The opera is updated to wartime Britain (or 1946 as we are informed in the director's note), everyone having a jolly old time, the horrors of the worst war in the history of mankind having left no mark whatsoever on the rambunctious inhabitants of Windsor (though they are now growing their own veg). The sets by Ultz (just Ultz...) posess a boxy artificiality - a self consciously set-like tudorbethan backdrop for the contrived antics. The direction by Richard Jones (revival direction Sarah Fahie) mirrors this artificiality, and the movement is very choreographed throughout. Sadly it doesn't at all avoid the obvious dangers of this approach and the character's motions very rarely seem to come out of palpable intention. It's worst for the women who don't seem to be able to do anything on their own, always moving as a pack (though of course Nannetta keeps breaking away for her love scenes). There are a few smirks to be had, but most of it felt so overly staged and lacking in spontaneity that titters rather than belly laughs laughter were the order of the day.

Still there's much to enjoy, not least Laurent Naouri's rather personal take on Falstaff which included certain stylistic things that are unusual for Verdi singing. The extremity of the dynamic contrasts within the phrase and the concern for text over the long line worked for me here, as did his energetic and quite charming stage manner. Unfortunately the one serious moment of reflection in the opera, the beginning of Act II, where Falstaff laments the state of society and realises that he is ageing, is played completely for laughs - he strips off, revealing his flabby (but disappointingly normally proportioned) body to huge laughs from the audience (there would definitely have been several members at least as amply proportioned though) and so the one place where the wartime theme might have enriched the poignancy of a scene, passes as for nothing. I have to say also that the trick playing was strangely joyless and Alice comes off rather badly as a cruel rouser of large scale bullying: we are mainly party to the infliction of humiliation and fear on an individual for the entertainment of the crowd. Part of the problem might be that the upper class Falstaff has lost most of his status and power by the 1940's and so the punishment for his his self delusion and desperate but not altogether very threatening lechery seems completely at odds with the crime - I mainly felt sorry for him and the end left a bitter taste.

After hearing many good things about her from various sources, Ailyn Pérez disappointed as Alice Ford. She is an extremely beautiful woman with a very smiley demeanour, but the voice has very little presence in the theatre and failed to create the character in sound. The top, while covered, is her best range and at least projects. But Alice sits quite low as soprano roles go, and Pérez's middle voice and chest voice severely lack colour, bloom and volume. There's no trill and the small amount of flexibility that this role calls for seemed hard fought for. I was greatly looking forward to her ROH Manon next season, but now I'm quite wary: despite the fact that it's seen as a coloratura role, it requires tremendous support in the lower registers, and sits there for long periods of time. Curious, as there's a lot of buzz around her at the moment, so perhaps she was having an off night?

Susanne Resmark is a very decent Mistress Quickly, nicely acted and vocally assured, though just short of ideal. There's something awe inspiring about the true contralto voice that creates a special excitement and there are certain contralto roles that when sung well augment the appeal of an opera immeasurably - Mistress Quickly, Erda, Gaia, Ulrica all fall into this camp. Resmark has some of the elements and certainly has a very nice voice, but the very lowest notes lack body - this is a talented dramatic mezzo managing an alto role.

The young lovers both impressed, with Antonio Poli an appealing Fenton, but it was Elena Tsallagova's Nannetta that was the vocal highlight for me - this is a role sung near the beginning of many a light lyric's career, and Tsallagova nailed it on all accounts - those endless piano high notes were totally bewitching, and the timbre and colour of the voice is simply ideal. More please.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment are a mixed blessing in the pit. In what is by far Verdi's most refined and beguilingly subtle score, the attention to detail and colour that these superb musicians bring should be fully welcome, but strangely it feels undernourished in the score's quieter portions, while the grander moments of the score blaze with delightful colour. In the best bits, Mark Elder imbues it all with a soft hued beauty - it's the more baroque elements, the bustling detail, that ironically elude the orchestra, mostly played with a lot of attack but not enough body in the sound.

Sunday 26 May 2013

Ariadne auf Naxos at Glyndebourne: take 2


I don't often go to a show twice, but in the past few months I have revisited a few - the RAM Onegin, the ROH Don Carlos, the ENO Wozzeck and this Glyndebourne Ariadne, each excellent in its own way. I am very glad to have seen this Ariadne again - the second viewing brought a better performance from all the leads, and it confirmed to me everything that I had written in my first review - namely that this is one of the best pieces of Regie theatre that I have seen, and probably the best production of Ariadne auf Naxos that I have experienced. Read my first review to find out why.

This time, the Prologue flowed better musically I thought, Jurowski building more momentum and leaving the players more room to breathe. The orchestra sounded simply magnificent in the main opera, with Jurowski's fleet pacing more controlled, as well as greater confidence in the orchestral playing resulting in an even more convinving and beautiful reading than the already extremely impressive first night.

Soile Isokoski's Ariadne was more steady and beautiful this time, as was Sergey Skorokhodov's Bacchus who was still coughing but sang quite magnificently in the finale with a beautiful ringing tone - he can surely only improve as he returns to full health. Laura Claycomb's Zerbinetta is really a very good interpretation - this is Strauss singing to get very, very excited about - again it's the great legato, musicality, and controlled pliancy that sets her apart from her colleagues who currently interpret this role - it's a rare thing when the big show-piece aria doesn't just dazzle, but is musically satisfying and moving too. The nymphs and dance troupe were again very impressive, and far more exciting than usual.

Monday 20 May 2013

Kalichstein/Laredo/Robinson Trio at the Wigmore Hall


I have the Kalichstein/Laredo/Robinson Trio's recording of the Brahms trios which is amazingly now almost 30 years old - this group have had a 36 year career together without a change in personnel. And it shows - fine as that recording is, this performance of the Brahms op.8 trio was even stronger in my opinion. Laredo and Robinson's approach to string playing are amongst the best matched I've ever heard in a piano trio. Both make judicious use of portamento, have a superb sense of legato, and the vibrato is a joy - starting at the beginning of every note rather than the bulgy straight tone followed by a burst of vibrato that has become so acceptable today. The fluidity, stylish ease, burnished sound, and unshowy yet exceptionally accurate and profound musicianship of all three players makes them blend in an almost uncanny manner, greater than the sum of its considerable parts - we're hearing not just great players or a great piano trio, but great music making. The partnership of Isaac Stern and Leonard Rose is brought to mind, and in fact Robinson sounds much like that American cello master (Laredo is warmer than Stern). Indeed, there's so much colour and nuance, that it almost always feels like more than just three musicians are playing - so overwhelmingly sonorous and beautiful was the first movement. It's performances like this that make one realise how unwarranted the common nagging fear of Brahms is - the stolid sobriety, heaviness, brownness and seriousness that his name conjures in the mind's eye is revealed to be a myth perpetrated by bad performances - here his youthful vigour, radiant suppleness, surpassing warmth and generosity shone through, sweeping aside all reservations one might have had. I still think the last movement of the trio is a little routine after the first three movements, but this was a very special performance.

I had really chosen to attend the performance for the Previn Piano Trio No.2 (2011), this being it's UK première. I have a real soft spot for Previn's music, and I guess one might classify it as a guilty pleasure - I'm sure my musical friends of an intellectual bent would be appalled at his sub easy Walton/Jazz/Hindemith/Shostakovich/Britten style, but the cello sonata (1994), four songs with texts by Toni Morrison (1994), Vocalise (1995), Sallie Chisum Remembers Billy the Kid (1995), opera A Streetcar Named Desire (1998), Tango, Song and Dance for Violin (1998), and Dickinson Songs (1999) all are favourites of mine. I've been less impressed with the works of the last decade or so - a second opera (Close Encounter) proved to be a rather tawdry affair, and there have also been several concertos for Anne-Sophie Mutter, each one blander than the last. The magic number for soprano and orchestra (1997) and the String quartet with soprano (2003) do pique me and I would very much like to hear them. I'll talk about his music in greater depth when I review the DVD of his opera A Streetcar Named Desire (hopefully quite soon), but suffice it to say, this Second Piano Trio is in line with my impressions of his recent pieces - all of Previn's fingerprints are there, but there's a feeling of production line, "wrist excercises" as Strauss would say, the harmony drabber, melodies dulled, textures murkier than all those beautiful works from the 1990s - sometimes it seems any old fragment will do as the basis for a melody, and that his heart's not really in it. The Kalichstein/Laredo/Robinson Trio are ideally suited to playing it - they have the measure of its slightly schmaltzy lilt, and really give it the best outing possible, but the passing niceties are not enough to sustain the fundamental lack of inspiration.

Something about the BBC broadcast doesn't capture the plushness of their sound unfortunately so I can't really recommend that you "listen again" on iplayer - it seems you had to be there.

The Lighthouse and Dido and Aeneas at Royal Academy of Music


The Lighthouse is a curious opera, but one that gets better as it goes through. The force of attention required to actually keep up with the text through the orchestration and unpredictable vocal lines is extreme, and in a performance without surtitles I must admit that I found the story difficult to follow, even though diction was good. The beginning I don't think works - three men all attempt to give an account of the their discovery of an abandoned light house to their boss. The interest here is in the disparities of their accounts, but as I say it's hard to keep up with each of them, let alone compare them - I'm just not sure that opera is the ideal medium for this sort of thing. The score is standard Peter Maxwell Davies - mildly modernist, gently atonal, loosely constructed, quirkily but underwhelmingly orchestrated. Things get much better in the second half where we see some sort of actual version of what went on. Three lighthouse keepers feel trapped in each other's company in the confines of a lighthouse. At first they attempt to pass their incarceration with some singing. The first is a sort of sea shanty folk song pastiche, a horrible account of a nasty childhood, amusingly and gruesomely retold by the slightly unhinged Blazes (baritone). The second keeper, the gentle and nervous Sandy (tenor), sings a sentimental Victorian ballad, again a wonderful pastiche which reveals the character superbly, and is so generous in the context that it can't help but bring a smile to the face. The final keeper Arthur (bass) sings a salvation army song with sonorous aplomb, agony and hardship transformed into a twisted religious ecstacy, again brilliantly in keeping with the character. Then a mysterious event occurs and each character gets a substantial dramatic scena - Blazes a madscene, terrifyingly dispatched by Samuel Queen, Sandy a wistful memory of his family, and Arthur a disturbing pseudo Christian ritual. (afterwards I read the synopsis and found out that the three lighthouse keepers were killed by the officers we met in the first act, though this wasn't obvious to me at the time. Maybe I was still dazed by the lighthouse keepers' scenes. I probably should have read it before hand: lesson learned.)

The vocal performances of the three leads were unstintingly brilliant in a difficult score that requires total commitment from the performers. It would be impossible to mark out one above the others - they were all individually great and worked brilliantly together as an ensemble. Iain Milne's exciting tenor sailed effortlessly through his music, his ballad an embarrassment of tenorial riches. The way he captured the timidity and sentimental innocence of the character was extremely endearing. Samuel Queen brings the requisite intensity for the baritone role of Blazes, singing with nuance, precision and splendid tone. He bravely and rightly pares down the voice for the folk song. Andri Björn Róbertsson seemed not so dark voiced in his recent RAM Gremin but here reveals that the true bass repertoire is well within his grasp, and though it is not yet huge in scale, there is a satisfying depth and evenness across all registers. Occasionally the vowel modification suggested he might be artificially darkening the voice a bit, but it worked for the character. Again the characterisation is strong and lucid - his sententious moralising, disapproving sobriety, visionary fear of god. All three roles require surprising excursions into falsetto, and all three sounded very good here. Particularly impressive at this was the Róbertsson who brought a fully supported sound right up into the high notes which meant that they were richer and more beautifully resonant than many a counter tenor that I have heard. Maybe a second career option!?

I thought John Ramster's production was very successful in presenting this tricky piece - he leaves plenty of ambiguity for the imagination and intellect to latch onto (surely the composer and librettist's intention) but at the same time I felt gripped throughout, even when it wasn't entirely clear what was going on. Somehow the simplicity of the setting and cutting away of the extraneous was also entirely in keeping with the music. There was impressive but understated detail in the characterisation too - the acting was simple but wholly believable and therefore engaging, even at the most farfetched moments in the plot. It wasn't quite as overwhelmingly superb as the RAM Onegin earlier this year, but then this opera does not offer anything like the riches of that masterpiece. Still, an enjoyable and wholly worthwhile evening and it was such a pleasure to see young singers rise so fully to a challenge and succeed so admirably. Contemporary English opera is in very good hands.

Dido and Aeneas, Purcell's evergreen one acter, has an arresting simplicity without paucity of effect, an emotional impact and richness of content that it is hard to fully explain. Director John Ramster realises this and presents the piece stripped down and bare, with Brechtian resonances that avoid us getting too deeply involved in the characters so that we instead reflect more abstractly on what the meaning of this work might be. I'm not sure I liked it overall, as much of the personal drama and clarity of the story was lost in this abstracted, choreographed, slightly clownish setting, but the concept at least is carried through logically. Perhaps the problem was that it didn't go far enough into strangeness, but perhaps the cast also weren't quite strong enough to carry it, though almost all sang nicely and accurately, with Sónia Grané a particularly sweet voiced Belinda. Rozanna Madylus caught my ear the most however and stood out for me as the Sorceress. The voice is not yet the finished article, but she seems able to draw on a pleasing range of vocal colours (an excellent sign at this early stage) some already fully formed, others clearly still works in progress, and I think she has enormous potential as a performer.

all photos (c) Sara Shorter

Sunday 19 May 2013

Ariadne auf Naxos auf Glyndebourne


This was the first opera of the Glyndebourne 2013 season, and what a magnificent start. Amazingly, the last time Glyndebourne staged Ariadne auf Naxos was in 1981, surprising because it seems such an ideal work for the house. Director Katharina Thoma seems to realise this connection and sets it in a English country house during the Second World War, where a rich gentleman has decided to put on an opera in his house (therefore mirroring the early Glyndebourne story). The Prologue sees the participants struggling to get the entertainment together as usual (except we see the guests taking a turn on the lawn) but somehow it falls a bit flat - Jurowski is tentative with his orchestra, the jokes are laboured, and the dramatic arc doesn't ignite fully (though the love duet is beautifully intimate). But in the chaos of the end ("Was ist das? Wohin?") a bomb is dropped on the house, and everyone rushes to safety - the entertainment is cancelled, and the Composer is distraught that real life has so painfully and mercilessly intervened with his ideals.*

all photos (c) Alastair Muir

The opera proper is superb though. Ariadne's scenes are difficult to stage because her drama is an internal drama - as Strauss realised immediately (we know from the letters), Hofmannsthal did not manage to invent a dramatically vivid reflection of the symbolism (nevertheless a beautiful poetic and intellectual idea), and so the meaning of the piece remains not fully realised in the final work. That said however, I have never seen Hofmannsthal's central idea so brilliantly or movingly put forward, nor have I ever been moved to care about the characters so much (my passion for the piece has thus far been largely for the wonders of the score). With the entertainment cancelled, the "opera" second act is instead turned into a real discussion between Zerbinetta and Ariadne (Ariadne, it transpires, is simply the name of "The Soprano" from the Prologue.) The country house has been converted into a hospital ward (which is historically accurate), with Ariadne a resident and Dryad, Echo and Naiad the nurses. So the piece becomes not so much a disputation of high/low art (though that is implicit in the music), and not even just about love, but about attitudes to life in the face of adversity - be it abandonment, death, war. Maybe the single common thread of Hofmannsthal's work is the conflict in life between staying principled and true to your ideals (Ariadne) in the face of life's flux, change and the constant ineluctable and mysterious transformation that we find in ourselves (Zerbinetta). Ariadne is a real woman shattered by her abandonment (we might infer that Theseus may actually have been killed in the war), but Zerbinetta explains that life must go on, and besides there's so much fun and fulfilment to be had. This attitude to love/the erotic is mirrored in the entire Commedia dell'arte troupe's attitude to the war - they dance with the residents and generally muck around in the face of the horrors of war - making do, laughing because the only other option is tears.

I've never been so convinced by Zerbinetta as a real flesh and blood character - Laura Claycomb lives and breathes her ethos of enjoyment, flux, change without resorting to shallowness - the emotions and pleasures are real, they just also happen to be fleeting. Her imploring of Ariadne to change is for once heartfelt, and her subsequent saucy antics convincing and non pornographic (that is, emphatically not for show) - her Joie de vivre, joyous sexual freedom, generosity of spirit, and warm heartedness are all palpable in every gesture. The sense of jealousy that the others feel when she finally chooses her man from the Comedy troupe is also keen and sad - we see the cost of freedom, and the deceptions we tell ourselves about why we are not more romantically successful are laid very bare. Hofmannsthal's beautiful language resonates fully at every turn - the positive effect of a German director who really understands the words? What a shame then that the surtitles are so poorly translated - often not just clumsily, but incorrectly - a rare lapse on Glyndebourne's part, particularly painful in the circumstances when for once text, music and drama are working so well in accord.

When Ariadne returns she is ready for death. Bacchus is just a man (as he keeps telling her) but notices that she is a very distraught and tortured woman. His simple act of total empathy for a fellow human being is enough to save her from her despair and begin the process of transformation and recovery for her. His potentially cheesy words "Dann sterben eher die ewigen Sterne, Als dass du stürbest aus meinen Armen!" (roughly "The eternal stars will die before I'd let you die in my arms") have never been more touching, meant or hopeful. And through her transformation and blossoming into love, he, against his own expectations, is also is transformed in love - he has found solace from war in providing comfort and showing love for another human being.

This all sounds very high minded, but in Thoma's production, at every point the symbolic meaning hits home and becomes moving on a human level. Though laughs were effortful in the Prologue, the thoughtful character regie and attention to detail in the main opera means that it is consistently amusing, poignant, gripping. I mean, the three nymphs as nurses sounds twee and sort of filled me with dread when I first saw it, but it just works so well. Thoma also takes very careful notice of the score - the mood, tempo and texture - and closely matches it with actions and visuals. Such a rare thing to see done well.

Musically things are very good indeed. Conductor Vladimir Jurowski, in his final season as Glyndebourne's musical director, shows once again why he will be so sorely missed. As I said, the Prologue felt undernourished and lacked momentum, but once we got to the Opera proper, Jurowski presented us with a treasure trove of delights. I haven't heard it felt so convincingly to be a "chamber opera" as in his hands, and the "numbers" so well integrated into the dramatic whole - the thing rolls forward with a pellucid lightness and a refreshing, vernal beauty, sections melting into each other, the contrast between the seria and buffa sections wonderfully hazy. It's a great achievement and just as the production made me see the drama anew, the conducting and playing made me hear the music anew. The binding of aural and dramatic aesthetics is total.

The cast is very strong. Soile Isokoski is a far more moving and engaged actress than I thought she would be, having read many of her previous reviews in other roles. She is fully in the line of silvery, shimmery Ariadnes - the Lisa Della Casa school if you will. The voice is not quite in its prime any more, but is still very beautiful indeed, and after some slightly spread top notes in her opening scena, she got better and better, and in the final duet produced some glorious singing. Ariadne is role that has frequent excursions beneath the stave, and I was pleasantly surprised at how matched Isokoski's chest voice was to the rest of her instrument- it's not particularly rich, but it is very present and well integrated.

As already mentioned Laura Claycomb embodies Zerbinetta very movingly too, but vocally she is also excellent. It's not always the most effortlessly beautiful voice, but the legato is simply superb, and her musicianship gives her singing a great beauty and expressivity. The very highest notes (all those E6s!) are a little harsh, but it's a small price to pay when the rest is so good: generally the voice is warm, pliant, the coloratura accurate and smooth. Kate Lindsey is a pleasing Composer (both her first time in the role and like the other principal women, her first time at Glyndebourne), possessing a very rounded, well integrated sound with a beautiful soprano like top. She acts the part well. Often the timbre is so shiny and rounded that the diction suffers, and the voice is perhaps a shade small in the climaxes but this is a lovely début.

There are no really weak links in the rest of the cast. The nymphs' music appears as a particular musical highlight (usually such a bore!), very richly and beautifully dispatched by Ana Maria Labin, Adriana Di Paola, and Gabriela Istoc, and their acting is great. Thomas Allen is his usual best as the Music Master, the four comedians (Dmitri Vargin, James Kryshak, Torben Jurgens, Andrew Stenson) better integrated and also more beautiful sounding than the usual character singers we get in these roles. The big one I haven't mentioned is Sergey Skorokhodov in the thanklessly difficult and demanding role of Bacchus. He really wasn't bad for most of it, but by the final phrases he was clearly ailing, coughing once between phrases (was he ill?), and not quite managing to get to the end with all engines blazing. Still, there's plenty to admire in his singing, and one hopes he will improve throughout the run as he acclimatises to the role.

 You'll notice that I use the phrase "never before" a lot in this review, because so many things are revelatory in this production. Overall then a brilliant start to the season, and I cannot wait to see Falstaff next Friday.

EDIT: Mark Berry @Boulezian, who takes a diametrically opposed view in his assessment of this staging in his review, raises concerns that Thoma raises some laughs by using Zerbinetta's supposed mental illness as fodder (and further also suggested on twitter:  "Misogyny of Thoma's Ariadne: woman sings high notes, therefore 'mad', thus molest and straitjacket her, therefore she is fodder for hilarity"). Tim Ashley at the Guardian makes related allusions. This would obviously be very serious and offensive if it were the case whether intentional or accidental, but I must register my disagreement with this analysis. To me, the fussy nurses are not "the voice of Thoma", but the "voice of conformity and prudishness". They don't know how to deal with a woman who is so unbeholden and enjoys/understands her sexuality so thoroughly, and seeing the world through 1940s medical eyes, attempt to straight-jacket and sedate her (all brilliantly choreographed and sensitive to the changes in the music in my opinion) - but she's not held down for long and soon escapes to have fun with her men again - there's was no sense at all I thought that Zerbinetta was either a) genuinely mentally ill, or b) being disapproved of by the production as a whole (indeed, quite the opposite). Opinions will vary of course, and everyone will interpret what they see from a different perspective, but I was so surprised at this analysis, that I just had to write my "version of events".

*disturbingly, lots of audience members guffawed when the bomb was dropped, and chuckles were also heard when a patient had to be sedated because he was spasming in his sleep in the aftermath of some unspeakable horror. I couldn't quite believe it.

Saturday 18 May 2013

La donna del lago at the ROH


La donna del lago is only rarely performed and so there is unlikely to be a "standard" version in the minds eye that we can compare a new production to, particularly one which attempts a lot of regie as this production by John Fulljames does. Here's my account of what I saw. The opera opens with Elena ("the lady of the lake") as a beautiful museum piece in a flapping gossamer shawl, a legendary figure, literally in a glass case as a group of society gents peer at her. In the background, painted on to the oak panelling, is a kitsch, idealised version of the Scottish landscape - these 19th century gentlemen have captured nature, rendering it benign, decorative, tamed. They let her out and she begins to sing - so we're seeing them indulging in a spot of idealised history, after having conquered the Scots. It turns out that these men are representatives of the invading king, who meets Elena and is captivated by her beauty. Though she flirts with this Monarch (Uberto) without realising that he is the king, Elena actually loves Malcolm (a highlander, mezzo trouser role) and they proclaim their love for each other (there's a wonderful duet for the two mezzos here). However this is a love quadrangle: she's betrothed to Rodrigo, the violent, rapist leader of the highlanders. After much arguing over who will get Elena (I'm simplifying things), Rodrigo is killed in battle which the invading posh gents win, and finally the king realises that Elena will never love him and shows clemency to the rebel Malcolm, allowing him and Elena to wed. Except, now tamed, controlled, they are all turned into museum pieces and Elena and the others are returned to their glass cases.

Except that this is all wrong. This interpretation is very different to what the production designers intended, and I know this because the official explanation for this production exists on youtube. The concept is so complicated and in my opinion not clearly enough realised on stage that if you hadn't watched the video before hand (as I hadn't - I just watched it after writing my account above) I think it would be a very tall order to get it all. Their newly constructed narrative is based on the idea of historical periods being reinterpreted to fit the exigencies of present political situations - but you have to know some very specific information about some obscure organisations of Rossini's/Walter Scott's time (two characters are dressed as these men apparently, which explains their strange observing behaviour) to interpret it "correctly". Much as I encourage radical reimaginings of operas when done well, this sort of focus on extremely specific historical situation is for me not what good theatre is about, though some will no doubt lap it up. Visually I'd say the design was quite strong, the sets by Dick Bird nicely atmospheric whilst remaining simple, the lighting good and the costumes effective. There are some beautiful effects - the first time Elena is revealed in her glass case for instance, and also the shadows cast on her castle as it rotates the first time we see it - but these are purely aesthetic matters that don't add to our understanding of the piece.

Great singing is the thing in this production, but actually the "stars" are largely outshone by their less famous colleagues. Daniela Barcellona in the trouser role of Malcom is simply superb - the voice is quite large, the coloratura brilliantly executed, the chest register extremely rich and well developed, and her commitment to using Rossini's music to express emotion unsurpassed by the rest of the cast. The top is a bit strident and unblended, but this was exciting singing. Physically her portrait of a swarthy highlander is absolutely extraordinary - you never doubt for a second that you are seeing a powerfully masculine lone ranger in front of you. Also magnificent is Michael Spyres, brought in last minute to cover the "baddie role" of Rodrigo after an ailing Colin Lee was forced to pull out. Rodrigo is a role of extremes, even within the bel canto repertoire, requiring heroic weight in the extended coloratura passages, very high singing, and also a very strong low register. This was an exceptional début - Spyres delivered all of this in spades, offering full support of the vocal line across at least two whole octaves from a very rich, powerful, warm and beautiful baritonal low register, to a firm and nicely coloured middle, to a clear and almost as beautiful high register. He's not baritonal in the Kaufmann sense because the top is nowhere near as covered and has authentic Italianate ping. The coloratura is accurate and exciting. Occasionally some of the very top notes were slightly pinched, but I rate this amongst the very best tenor singing we've heard this season. Physically too, he was very convincing, and I can't wait to hear more from him. Strange that he didn't get a bigger ovation at the curtain calls.

Joyce DiDonato sang quite well, but it took until her spectacular final aria for her to really get going - this last piece "Tanti affetti" was easily the best she sounded all night - the coloratura incisive, the timbre firm, the dynamic control exquisite and we finally got to hear some trills at the ROH! In general this is probably the best I've heard her live. The problems are the same though: the vibrato is extremely fluttery, the voice a thin silvery thread (and therefore rather unitalian sounding), and her top sounds tight and restricted. The tension in the sound can be a resource for her to use, but it can also make for uncomfortable listening, and neither the legato nor the intonation is consistent enough to allow the listener to relax and be fully captivated. Acting wise she does quite nicely with what is a rather meek role. I'm sure her fans won't be disappointed, but it's not a voice I can cherish.

This was the first time I have heard Juan Diego Flórez live and I am almost embarrassed to say that I wasn't enamoured, given his apparently universal adoration. The good points are obvious - the extraordinarily firm top, the superb intonation, the razor sharp coloratura, the unbelievable squillo. But there were things I didn't like - he is unable to colour the voice at all - the sound you hear at the beginning of the night is the same sound you'll hear for the entire evening. This would be OK, but there's a lot of "noise" in the sound  (harmonics that are jarring with the fundamental) which gives it a hardness that can turn bleating if he pushes too hard. And he did just that in the trio which involves the two tenors hitting the same high note repeatedly - Spyres sounded ringing, beautiful, not massive, but Florez pushed them so that they were much louder, but lost quality - a couple even lost their vibrato entirely. Any sort of interpretive nuance was hard to come by too - connecting musical line and emotion is not a strong point. Add to this a thin low register (high notes aren't everything), stock acting (e.g. lots of raising the arms) and a lack of focus on his colleagues, and the result is a rather unengaging stage personality.

The rest of the cast are decent, especially Justina Gringyte as an extraordinarily loud and pingy Albina (another trouser role). The ROH orchestra are flabby and ponderous under Michele Mariotti, never capturing the picante bite and electric detail of Rossini's writing. There are ensemble issues too, but it's the laxness that makes the music seem hazy and lethargic - too much body, not enough energy.

Overall, this is probably worth going to see for the singing, and reasonably entertaining production, but beware it's a real marathon piece (first act finished at 8:43pm, after a 7:00pm kickoff) so not if you don't love Rossini!

Tuesday 14 May 2013

Wozzeck at the ENO


If there is one essential 20th century opera, it is Wozzeck*.  It was fascinating to see and hear it so soon after the WNO's Lulu last month (see the review for my thoughts on the piece) and be reminded of how different it is. In Lulu there is a floating meaningless to everything, a dislocation of emotion, music, event; Wozzeck is overloaded with meaning, portents, extreme emotional and psychological states, such that madness is the only rational recourse. The music of Wozzeck glowers, exalts, soughs, weeps, screams; the music of Lulu unfurls, luxuriates, courses, throbs, coruscates. Both are supreme masterpieces, but why is Wozzeck essential? To me it seems one of the few genuinely positive developments from Wagner which fully captures the zeitgeist, in an era of kitsch, schlock, sleaze, bad taste, sentimentality, shock tactics - Strauss, Schreker, Korngold, much as I love them all (really I do), represent a decline from Wagnerism, doubtless fertile and with boundless energy, but nevertheless a collapsing end to Teutonism where extraordinary beauty of surface, infallible technique and guiltless vulgarity conspire to make a style of total excess that simply cannot support itself indefinitely. On the other side, and very closely related in my opinion, is Schoenberg who after his equally luxuriant beginnings, and wonderful early "free atonal" modernism, castrates himself in the 20s by eschewing beauty, colour, pleasure and it's left to others who also adopt serialism to reclaim these aspects of music, which it transpires are essential to the meaning, not just the style, of music. In Wozzeck, Berg builds something new and very powerful that really has not been seen in music before - using an 80 year old text, he manages to portray madness, human frailty, alienation, sickness, and extremes of psychology on stage using a musical language and dramatic framework that can for once totally bear the requirements of the task.

Carrie Cracknell updates the piece to contemporary Britain, the working classes dealing with the fall out of the Iraq (?) war. For once the physical and visual aspects of a production actually manage to capture modern Britain with honesty, realism, and mercifully without the feeling of "playing at poverty". The set is a sort of dolls house arrangement with a pub at the bottom, Wozzeck's house on the second floor, and a mysteriously unused top floor. Despite the static layout, it never bores visually and provides an excellent backdrop for Cracknell's idea. Cracknell takes the drama deadly seriously, not making light of anything, trying always to lead us through the tortured narrative with maximum clarity and relevance. Some things are superbly handled - Marie's infidelity, the crowd scenes, Wozzeck's mental fragmentation, and his death. In the original, Wozzeck drowns possibly as an accident because he is concerned with hiding the knife that he has killed Marie with. Here, the whole scene takes place in his kitchen, the situation entirely enacted in his mind, and he commits suicide using the same knife, slumping onto the table facing the already murdered Marie. At this moment, the walls begin to run with blood. I left the theatre shaken and physically sick, wanting to cry but being unable to. Berg's genius was surely the main constituent, but any production that manages to allow this to happen must surely be deemed to be an overall success.

There are problems however. The huge number of nature references in the libretto, go as for nothing. In Wozzeck, Nature is imminent, terrifying, loaded with significance, full of bad portents, all of them are true. While it is true that society in our time very alienated from nature, and so it would be out of place to depict much of it on stage, the text is the text, and to ignore it because your setting doesn't allow it, even if it is a prime ingredient of the drama, seems to me to be an eschewal of responsibility. The bigger problem however derives from a certain inauthenticity in depicting modern working class Britain. As I say, visually the illusion is complete, but Richard Stokes' translation of the libretto retains the classical references and sometimes artful language of the original, and everyone insists on using (or perhaps were forced to use) the ENO's generic "proper English" diction, which is broadly BBC English. It just doesn't ring true. At the same time, Americanisms (e.g. asshole, rather than arsehole) sit beside old fashioned grammatical constructions. Marie's recourse to Christianity seems unlikely in an age where religion has been replaced by mass media. There's also a spurious and slightly confusing drug dealing subplot which didn't really add anything beyond giving the characters something to do on stage. There are always challenges to an updating, but it would have been better art if the ENO had been braver in allowing the concept to lead the translation and accents, especially as English is a language so particularly laden with class implications. It all made me wonder what a Regency Wozzeck would look like. What about one set in the upper classes of that time? Is poverty essential to the drama? Would be fascinating to find out.

Leigh Melrose is a vocally excellent Wozzeck, fully managing the huge range of expression and intensity that the character requires vocally. Acting wise, I found it a mixed bag - he was very good in the latter, madder half of the opera, often very touching, but at first was not very believable and registered as the least defined character that we were introduced to.

With the caveat that it was sung in English, I really cannot imagine a more vocally ideal Marie than Sara Jakubiak. The voice is beautiful in every register at every volume, and sounds positively large even in the Coliseum, which is basically unheard of (pun not intended). I am greatly looking forward to seeing Karita Mattila perform the same role at the ROH next season, but honestly would be as happy hearing Jakubiak. Same would go for the ROH Ariadne actually. I couldn't quite believe how good she was. Acting wise, she was unfortunately less convincing and in the early scenes would continually just sing straight at the audience rather than to her son/Wozzeck/lover. Again though, she improved as the opera progressed.

The rest of the cast are also vocally very good. Tom Randle's bare chested Captain is brilliantly characterised, and James Morris' impressive Doctor quite horrible in his fascination with and clear exacerbation of Wozzeck's madness. Clare Presland's Margret revealed a voice of unique colour, and Bryan Register's Drum Major is a brilliant physical embodiment of the part (though provides the most jarring dislocation of accent and character).

The orchestra is a marvel. This is in my opinion one of the best things that Ed Gardner has done: his passionate advocacy shines through in every bar, his tempos always excellent, his support of the singers exemplary, and even in the horribly pallid acoustics of the Coliseum, every one of Berg's extraordinary orchestrations emerges beautiful, glistening, wilting under its own overwrought intensity and density. At some points it felt like we were hearing Mahler's 11th Symphony, and there were places that I just have never heard Berg's textures so tellingly or beautifully revealed. Had this been in the ROH's acoustic it would have been aural perfection. The orchestra of course are at least half the deal here - the playing was simply superb throughout. A sterling achievement.

*I would also urge the four mature Janacek operas as the sane, moral, healthy counterweight to Berg's masterpiece, but would be loathe to choose just one. Maybe Vixen for the greatest contrast?

Thursday 9 May 2013

Don Carlo at ROH: Take 2


See my main review here for my main comments on this show.

Sadly and perhaps too predictably, Anja Harteros cancelled (suffering from "acute tonsillitis" as we were assured by Kasper Holten at the start of the show) so thank god she did turn up for the first night at least. (As a side note, I don't know where Intermezzo gets her information from, but I have heard a conflicting account of Harteros' future hiring at the ROH - i.e. that there are future contracts.)

Her replacement was Lianna Haroutounian, an Armenian soprano making her ROH debut (and already stepping to fill the final four perfomances of this run of Don Carlo which Harteros cancelled a couple of months ago.) She understandably got a huge cheer at the end of the night, but aside from a reasonably good "Tu che le vanità" I found this to be a rather lacklustre performance. Until then the chest and middle voice had been very modest indeed, and throughout the timbre was curiously unvibrant and not very attractive. She is a very controlled singer at least, though her high notes were consistently a shade flat.

I forgot to mention in my main review that Eric Halfvarson had a throat infection during the first night performance, though one hardly noticed. Here he was on even finer form, his voice more focused and powerful, and his Act IV solo passages and then the duet with King Philip II (Ferruccio Furlanetto) were even more thrilling than they were on the first night. Staggering.

Béatrice Uria-Monzon was on better form too with a marginally more accurate Veil Song, and a quite brilliant "O Don Fatale". I was trying to work out what made her so engaging to watch on stage, but couldn't put my finger on it. She moves a lot which can often be distracting and can come across as nervyness or mugging in other performers, but here she just seemed to live onstage, and her exceptional grace and fluidity of movement meant that there was never any question of the problems mentioned. It's always tempting to call it "naturalness" onstage, that is there is nothing artificial that draws attention to the actor rather than the character, but I'm not sure that that is specific enough. And it's not just looks - yes she's naturally beautiful, but there are other beautiful singers around who are not captivating onstage in this way. In any case, I felt sorry for her at the curtain call because she got such modest cheers compared to the others, I'm guessing for the same reasons I gave in my main review: for me she will stick most in my mind I'm sure along with Halfvarson and Furlanetto. Will have to keep thinking what made her so appealing.

Which brings me to Jonas Kaufmann, and something that was slightly nagging me after the first performance. Yes he is a spectacular singer, and probably the best tenor on earth. But actually, having seen his Carlos twice now, there's actually very little that is memorable about what he was doing. Whether this was the lack of matching of voice and repertoire (however expertly performed), or a lack of sympathy with the direction of this production, there was something slightly generic about this performance, acting and singing wise, even although it was committed. Again I'm comparing him to his own high standards so make of this what you will.

The other thing that this performance brought to mind was this: I think I'm one of the few people that prefers the four act version of Don Carlos. I seem to read endlessly that the five act version is preferable because it gives more context for the story and characters, but musically Act I of the five act version is easily the thinnest Act, and I don't think it actually does explain their relationship that well. Why is Carlos so desperately and helplessly infatuated? Why is he so totally incapacitated by this love? These questions are not answered by the music or libretto of Act I, so a director really needs to do something extra here to justify it. I think usually it's going to be much stronger if we implicitly supply our own ideas and backstory - imagination based on suggestion is usually more powerful than literal presentation because it's not so pat, so closed, so explained - we can apply our own truth/reasoning/psychologising to an ambiguity whereas we are forced to either accept or reject a director's explicit idea if we are presented with it. Obviously there's a line, and it cant be too abstracted or open or its alienating or just confusing, but there's a huge middle ground here. Additionally there's the matter of the lovely music cut from the four act version to make room for the new First Act in the five Act version. Hmm.

Sunday 5 May 2013

Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House with Jonas Kaufmann, Anja Harteros and Ferrucio Furlanetto


With its superb cast this production has been possibly the most eagerly anticipated ROH show of the season, and despite a slightly tepid start, it soon completely lives up to the highest expectations.

Director Nicholas Hytner (revival direction by Paul Higgins) takes an interesting approach to the piece, which while it doesn't at all neglect its Grand Opera status, does reinterpret many characters' motivations and attitudes. First and foremost is the relationship between Elisabeth de Valois (Anja Harteros) and Don Carlos (Jonas Kaufmann). They are not at all credible as an erotic couple - their Act I romance is presented as a childish daliance, and in the central acts, Elisabeth is not really very tempted by Carlos' advances and hysterical overtures. This all changes when she learns of her husband's infidelity, and so in Act V we see her idealise and rationalise the whole affair with Carlos to suit her new psychological exigencies (and it must be said that the newfound dreamy, unearthly beauty of her music seems to suggest a very profound change in her). Throughout Don Carlos is presented as a slightly hysterical, even goonish character - it's difficult to understand why he is so totally distraught and obsessed about this failed engagement. Many scenes end with a prison wall coming down at the front of the stage, leaving him alone showing that mentally he is in prison long before he is physically locked up. In the calmly and movingly acted final Act, the two of them seem more like brother and sister, or even "mother and son" as they refer to each other, all in line with the repeated allusions in the libretto. The father/son dynamic of King Philip and Carlos is conspicuously and surely deliberately absent.

The real romantic couple of the drama is revealed to be a homoerotic one - that is the relationship between Carlos and Posa - again subtly achieved and suggested, and never fully consummated but very obviously intended to be there, at least from Posa's side. Their physical and emotional intimacy perfectly mirrors the text and makes total sense of the otherwise slightly troublesome sacrifice that Posa chooses to make. As I say all this comes completely from the libretto and never seems wilfully added or out of kilter with text, and nor is it some hideously over the top "Broke back Carlos" idea.

Bob Crowley's designs are hit and miss. The general aesthetic is rather minimalist with very strong colours to characterise each scene. The snow scape of Act I is about as unevocative and clumsily executed as can be imagined - visually a mess with ugly and nonsensical white panels whose only function seems to be to cover the sides of the stage. The dark cathedral in Act II however (which returns in Act V) is the total opposite: maximum atmosphere is created with the most economic means - a row of pillars, a tomb and strongly directional lighting is all that is required. For the "Veil Song" in Act II we revert to ugly crudeness, which continues into Act III's horrid garden and the Auto-da-fé scene, though the latter is saved by a stunning and shocking coup de théâtre as we see the bodies burning on stakes during the closing bars. Brilliant visual boldness and subtlety is restored in Act IV and V in the prison like cavern of Philip's study, Carlos' actual prison, and then the return the oppressive majesty and mystery of the Cathedral.

As an overall evening it works well - though I must admit that I was slightly disappointed after Act III and thought that this had been an opportunity missed. But it all pulls together in Acts IV and V and becomes the stunning piece of theatre that this cast in this opera promised to be. Part of this is surely due to Verdi's score. These last two acts (and particularly Act IV) stand with Boccanegra, the Requiem and Falstaff at the very Summit of Verdi's musical and dramatic achievement. Ferruccio Furlanetto could scarcely be bettered as Philip vocally or dramatically and at 64 (later this month) it's a miracle his voice still sounds so fantastic. His aria and duet with Eric Halfvarson's equally impressive Grand Inquisitor was fully the highlight that it should be in the opera, and set the extraordinarily high standard for the rest of the evening.

The Act V aria "Tu che le vanità" was simply the best singing I have ever heard from Anja Harteros. While eminently decent in the first three acts, there were issues - the middle register was sounding hard and overdarkened, and dramatically she seemed slightly blank. But then in Act IV the voice became much more focussed and beautiful, and by Act V we got phrase after phrase of truly superb singing. The chest register was wonderfully coloured and supported, the middle finally warmed, and the top so large and full that I just instantly thought Sieglinde (O hehrstes Wunder!). Acting wise as well the turning point came in Act IV with Eboli's admission of guilt. I had problems with her Desdemona last season, but I finally get why everyone loves her so much. Wonderful.

Jonas Kaufmann followed a similar trajectory over the evening going from merely good in the early stages, to totally wonderful in Act V. What is abundantly clear is that he's absolutely in his prime and the world's leading tenor in the lyric-spinto repertoire; I hardly need describe the virtues of the voice. The issue comes with the Italian repertoire and whether his voice is ideally appropriate for it. As I say there is no question that he is the best in the world at this Verdi repertoire at the moment, but taking the longer range view, since this is a voice of shall we say "historic" importance, I think it's prudent to think on where he can make the biggest contribution to the art form and create the greatest legacy given that he'll be allowed to sing anything he asks to do at this stage. The issue is that his very distinctive sound and extraordinary evenness in all registers derives partly from a great deal of vocal cover, the flip side of which is that there is just no squillo (aka Italianate "ping") in the voice to speak of. On CD/DVD this is a very difficult thing to get an accurate picture of, but in the theatre it's very obvious. Though his singing is founded on Italianate "bel canto" principles of long lines, legato, clean attack and perfect blend of registers, I'd argue that the timbre, his temperament and the particular bent of his artistry towards text and word shading make him much better suited to the German repertoire. Of course it's his career, he thrives on diversity, he'll sing what he loves and no one is ever going to complain. But when are we getting him in London in a major Wagner role for instance? Anyway.

Béatrice Uria-Monzon had been substituted for the originally billed Christine Rice who is recovering from a rather serious illness. Though I sorely missed Rice, and suspect that in the final assessment she would have made a superior Eboli, I was nonetheless largely very happy with Uria-Monzon's very distinctive interpretation. I very much like the voice - though it's far from having the most beautiful timbre, with some squall in the upper regions, and it's maybe a touch small for the role, the chest register is incredibly dark and dense and dirty in the Callas mould, she sings with colours, and everything she sings seems to matter. She only got moderate cheers at the curtain which I suspect was partly because of the not very accurate coloratura in the Veil Song and uneven timbre across the voice, but I like any woman who can act, make me care about what she's singing, and bark those low notes like a beast. I also have to love an Eboli who is for once more physically alluring than her soprano rival.

As Posa, Mariusz Kwiecień was in very fine voice, with a beautiful, well blended and very large sound, not a single note strained, and his arias beautifully delivered. A slight blandness in approach stopped me from being fully involved in his performance, but most will think this is cavilling in a very fine assumption of the role. Robert Lloyd was also rather brilliant as the spirit of Carlos V - astonishing also that he is 73.

In all this, and somewhat surprisingly I might add, conductor Pappano emerged as the weak link. The orchestra played accurately, but things just ticked along for the first three acts and Pappano hardly shaped any climaxes or tensions in the music, everything sounding a little drab and undifferentiated. Things didn't really get going until the last third of the evening, but the music is so inspired here that basically just playing the notes is going to be exciting, and he wasn't quite up to the superlative level of the singing. It must be admitted that many of the gorgeous sonorities in these last acts were at least brilliantly achieved. Perhaps he was having an off night. I am going again on Wednesday so we'll soon see.

Beg, steal, deceive your nearest and dearest, in order to get to this show - who knows when we'll see the like again.

Wednesday 1 May 2013

ENO 2013-14 Season

A quick round up of the new ENO season. Generally there's lots of nice things - Fidelio, two new Mozart productions, a Handel, a Berlioz, an operetta, a world premier and Peter Grimes with Stuart Skelton. Yes.

Fidelio (opens 25th Sep)
I enjoyed Calixto Bieito Carmen when it came to ENO this season, and am pleased that this Fidelio is coming too - it's meant to be an interesting and thoughtful production that raises questions about the piece. Emma Bell as Leonore, StuartSkelton as Florestan, conducted by Edward Gardner

Die Fledermaus (opens 30th Sep)
Christopher Alden's production with Eun Sun Kim conducting. Tom Randle is Eisenstein and Julia Sporsén as Rosalinde. I was just the other day lamenting the lack of operetta in London, so this is most welcome.

Madame Butterfly (Opens 15th Oct)
Anthony Minghella’s production is one I still haven't scene. I guess I should since it's meant to be so visually arresting, but after my recent Puccini experience with Tosca at the ROH, I'm not sure I can face it.

Die Zauberflote (Opens 7th Nov)
New production by Simon McBurney to replace Hytner's that I was underwhelmed by this season. Tamino is played by Ben Johnson, Devon Guthrie is Pamina, Roland Wood is Papageno and Mary Bevan is Papagena. Gergley Madaras conducts.

Satyagraha (Opens 20th Nov)
Glass' opera directed by Phelim McDermott with Stuart Stratford conducting, and Alan Oke as Ghandi. I'm wary of Glass' music in general, but have never seen one of his operas actually in the theatre, so will likely try to go.

Peter Grimes (Opens 29th Jan)
A revival of David Alden’s Peter Grimes with the superb Stuart Skelton as Grimes, with Elza van den Heever making her debut as Ellen Orford. I predict that this will be the highlight of the ENO season. Can not wait.

Rigoletto (Opens 13th Feb)
Graeme Jenkins conducts a new production by Christopher Alden. Quinn Kelsey takes the title role with Barry Banks as the Duke and Anna Christy taking role of Gilda. Not my favourite Verdi. We'll see how the reviews are.

Rodelinda (Opens 4th Mar)
A new Richard Jones production of this gorgeous Handel score. Rebecca Evans in the title role opposite Iestyn Davies as her husband Bertarido. Conducted by Christian Curnyn. Good news all round.

Powder Her Face
(Opens 2nd Apr)
This score earlyish score by Ades is extremly impressive, but I've found the meanness and coldness of the piece alienating in the past. Maybe Joe Hill Gibbins can make it more engaging? Apparently it's "site specific". The mind boggles.

Thebans (Opens 3rd May)
A world premiere by composer Julian Anderson’s with a libretto by Frank McGuinness with conductor Edward Gardner, directed by Pierre Audi. New work is always very welcome, but Audi's Castor and Pollux was one of the worst things I've ever seen. I live eternally in hope though. Singers include Roland Wood, Julia Sporsén, Peter Hoare, Anthony Gregory, Matthew Best and Jonathan McGovern

Cosi fan Tutte (Opens 16 May)
New production. Good. Kate Valentine and Christine Rice as the sisters. GOOD. Katie Mitchell directs conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth.

Benvenuto Cellini (Opens 5th June)
A new Terry Gilliam production of Berlioz’s early opera, conducted by Edward Gardner. Stars Michael Spyres as Cellini, Corinne Winters (the recent ENO Violetta), Nicky Spence and Willard White. Like much of Berlioz, the piece is uneven in inspiration, but contains some wonderful, wonderful music. I didn't much like Gilliam's last Berlioz production at ENO, but it'll probably be interesting at least.

The Pearl Fishers (Opens 16th June)
I haven't yet seen Penny Woolcock’s production of this famously difficult to stage piece, but I love Bizet so will definitely be going. Featuring Sophie Bevan and George van Bergan.

River of Fundament (Opens 29th June)
By Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler River of Fundament will be "screened at the Coliseum", "a film/opera project, presented worldwide on behalf of the artist by @MIFestival". Hmm. More details needed.

Here's the ENO's full detailed listing.