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Wednesday 24 July 2013

Capriccio in Concert, take II


This was the second and final performance of this duet of concert Capriccios at the ROH. To read a fuller review of the first night, click here.

Renée Fleming gave a more controlled performance this second night, with far less scooping, and there were no moments of dodgy sound production (there were a couple of small cracks on the first night). It was overall a slightly smaller scale performance, but in the final scene she was even more captivating than on the first night, getting rid of quite a lot of the forced theatrics, presenting it this time as a single dramatic and emotional arc, pain and beauty merging with obvious personal significance. Great to witness.

Gerhaher ironed out the little problems with text and lack of familiarity that he had had on the first night, again delivering a superb performance. His Olivier is moody, and even angry at times, and I have to say that this interpretation is one followed by directors quite a lot, with Flamand being the easy going, more romantic suitor. So many productions of Capriccio seem to have the Countess slightly (or more than slightly) favouring Flamand, and there is endless discussion in articles about the opera about whether that gorgeous final scene contains clues as to Strauss' preference (e.g. the banality of the final words compared to the sublimity of the music). The articles miss the point of the ambiguous ending I think, and directors who fail to make Olivier as attractive as Flamand as a character weaken the ending. The message of the piece is for me somewhat distorted if one is clearly more appealing to Madeleine than the other.

Unfortunately Andrew Staples was sounding a little hoarse on the second night, though he still sang well despite this. Peter Rose didn't seem to tire at all as La Roche, giving an even more impressive account of his monologue than the previous evening, and Bo Skovhus too seemed musically more in his stride as the Count. Everyone else sang well. The orchestra were a little more on top of the score this evening, but some of the magical sparkle of the first night was missing. Still, had I not heard Davis with the ROH Orchestra on the first night, I would have been very pleased with this performance.

I mentioned a significant cut in my first night review, but were there other small cuts? I don't remember hearing mention of who gets to be the tenor in the piece (though La Roche still gets his line about being the basso buffo), but I'm always reticent to say for sure on these things, because I may just have missed it because my attention was on the orchestra or something.

DVD Review: Königskinder 2010 Jonas Kaufmann Opernhaus Zurich


Königssohn: Jonas Kaufmann
Gänsemagd: Isabel Rey
Spielmann: Oliver Widmar
Hexe: Liliana Nikiteanu

Conductor: Ingo Metzmacher
Director: Jens-Daniel Herzog

Engelbert Humperdinck actually wrote several operas, though he is remembered for only one - his astonishing masterpiece, Hansel and Gretel (1893). Königskinder, another fairytale opera, is probably the most famous of the rest, and it has been performed and recorded surprisingly often, especially recently. Written in 1910, Humperdinck had by this time actually regressed compositionally since Hansel and Gretel, apparently entirely unaffected by the tumultuous upheavals that were shaking music from every side - in fact it's so calm and restrained that it feels reactionary. The score is drenched in Wagnerisms, but it is lamentably generic compared to Wagner's music, and lacks also Wagner's sense of momentum (which the vital and vivid Hansel and Gretel certainly doesn't lack). It's perfectly pleasant and professional moment to moment, and there are a few quite beautiful stretches which clearly emanate from the pen of a significant musical mind, but for the most part it's strangely characterless, the music and text lacking tension, and so the result is a little dull and unmemorable when taken as a whole.

This production updates the piece to some point in the recent past, with some people looking vaguely 50's-ish, but there are burger king hats and goths so it can't be that early. Basically we're seeing a society struggling to come to terms with new wealth and a new social order: the people are craving a ruler and have articulated this desire en masse. The child heroine, the Gänsemagd ("goose-girl") lives with her abusive Witch grandmother in a castle which here appears to be an abandoned school which the Witch has converted into a lab in which she is growing some sort of herb (possibly cannabis?). As a result of this isolation and abuse the Gänsemagd has retreated into an imaginary world (she plays with cardboard cut out geese) and her innocence and joy is untarnished by the Witch's cynicism. When the prince, travelling incognito as a poor huntsman, finds her he is a fulfilment of her fantasy, but she is unable to come to terms with reality so quickly and so she doesn't follow him. When in the second act they are reunited, the crowd laugh that this pair of poor children might be crowned king and queen, even although they have fulfilled all the "official" requirements - the crowd want people to rule them who appear worthy of their affluence. In Act III, the opera totally changes tone and is no longer a comedy, instead becoming a stern warning to societies who don't look after the meek and needy - the fiddler who helped the Gänsemagd in the first act is now blind and destitute, the two Konigskinder in a similarly bad state of affairs. The Prince trades his crown for some bread, but the bread happens to be the poisonous Witch's bread that was baked in the first Act (a minor event which I didn't remember until I reread the synopsis), and the two die after receiving ecstatic visions. The fiddler returns to sing the questionable moral of the tale. It all sort of works, but it never feels engrossing, the comedic elements are laboured to non existent, and visually it's not exactly generous on the eye.

This is a brave role for Jonas Kaufmann - not just because the Königssohn is vaguely paedophilic (it's suggested that he's much older than the Gänsemagd) and a woman beater - but also because it's not that spectacular vocally - one does wonder a bit why he took it on until the third Act where there is a half hour duet for the romantic couple. Except in the romantic scenes his acting is not at all convincing and he simply cannot do comedy. He sings gloriously: manful, heroic and beautiful, as is fully to be expected of this artist in his prime, though one might argue that a more youthful timbre would be more apt for the role.

The rest of the cast are nowhere near his standard vocally. Isabel Rey has a rather hard and mature sounding soprano, though she gets away with it because she controls the voice well, and she totally convinces in her acting as a young girl. Oliver Widmar is totally acceptable vocally (but nothing more) as the fiddler. The rest of the cast are vocally OK but dramatically null. The Zurich opera orchestra with Ingo Mezmacher at the helm give a slightly routine performance of the score, only intermittently giving it the extra push that it needs.

Overall, this is possibly not the best way to get to know the work as this is not a musically ideal performance, and it's not a very inventive production, but Kaufmann fans will no doubt want to see it, and it is the only available DVD of the work.

Saturday 20 July 2013

Don Pasquale at Glyndebourne


I saw this production when it was new in the 2011 Glyndebourne tour and very much liked it then. My view of the work has changed since then, and there has been a shift of focus in the direction in this revival too. I now see the score of Don Pasquale as the finest amongst Donizetti's comedies, with its constant playing with and thwarting of style, its elegant fluency and fine orchestration, and music which (for Donizetti) reflects the dramatic situation better than ever before. The programme says it's been called "Mozartian" by some commentators, and you can hear why even if it's 50 years too late (!) and not quite in the same league. The libretto and plot, heavily derived from ancient Roman comedy conventions (via Commedia dell'arte) as my companion fascinatingly informed me, is solid, engaging and well paced, if not quite as modern, insightful and eternally relevant as L'elisir d'amore.

Mariame Clément's production is elegant and fleet of foot, with Julia Hansen's revolving set put to exceptionally imaginative use. I again appreciated the way the characters' clothes are reflected in the decor, and also liked how strongly each character is differentiated dramatically from the others. Clément sees Malatesta as a shady figure, all things to all men, so his double crossing of Ernesto with Norina seems fully within character and is a cruel twist. This angle is much more assiduously developed in this revival - though they no longer run off with each other in the final scene - Norina turns away from Ernesto longingly towards Malatesta - certainly not the end of that story. Don Pasquale is not very unlikeable - he's a poor old buffoon who just wants a comfortable life, and in fact he often is painted in a rather touching light. Ernesto is a clueless teenage romantic, Clément following all the queues in the music - it's clear that Donizetti is painting him as a figure to be laughed at, just as much as we're meant to laugh at Don Pasquale. The chorus are a 18th century Glyndebourne audience, picnicking on the lawn, watching the action just as we are - again in line with what Donizetti seems to see their function as.

In the end, the production felt a bit plain to warrant a second viewing, but it still looks good, and charms enough that I wasn't bored. The cast are largely very good. As Don Pasquale, Alessandro Corbelli doesn't have the largest voice, but he sings with class and his portrait of the old man is endearing and nuanced. Nikolay Borchev is in lovely voice for Malatesta, perhaps a bit plain, but it seems in keeping with this production's view of the character that he shouldn't have too much personality. Enea Scala, standing in for Alek Shrader, has an excellent legato and powerful Italianate sound, so is in some ways ideal for the role of Ernesto especially when he acts it with such naive candour, but the fundamental timbre is a little pinched for my liking.

The star of the show is clearly Danielle De Niese's Norina. As bubbly and vivacious as ever, she is magnetic to watch, so at ease does she seem on stage. The voice seemed a little tight on this opening night, but the coloratura is basically all in place and I couldn't hear any aspirates, so she's at least as good as anyone I have seen live in this role. It's not the most beautiful voice, but she's always concerned with the expression of the text, another reason that she is so engaging. One thing that is lacking vocally is a trill, and it's so vital in this role as there are so many occasions when one is called for - to me it sounds like the voice is flexible enough to be capable of one if the work is put in. Acting wise, I wish she had offered a bit more range - for all her talking about the complexity of the character in the programme, more softness might have been appreciated at times - she seems just as ruthless and self serving as Malatesta, albeit in a more minxy way. Somehow Adina seemed like a better fit vocally and temperamentally when she sang it two seasons ago at Glyndebourne, but still, this was a winning performance.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra sounded absolutely glorious under Enrique Mazzola, deliciously plush, whilst remaining light and rhythmically bouyant - streaks ahead of the ROH's recent bel canto efforts in this regard. It's rare that one can comment so positively on the orchestra in a bel canto opera, but I thought they were exceptional throughout. Cello, trumpet and horn solos were all gorgeously delivered, but this was a marvellous ensemble effort.

Capriccio at the Royal Opera House with Renée Fleming


What a gift. I was beginning to wonder whether Strauss' final and most perfect opera Capriccio simply was too rarely put on and too demanding in live performance for it to be likely that I'd ever see a really good one, but this was great. I was astonished to discover that the ROH has staged the opera fully only once - that was in 1991 with Kiri Te Kanawa. (In 1953 the Bavarian state opera came with a visiting production). This evening was a "concert performance" but it verged heavily towards "semi-staged" - Fleming and Skovhus, both of whom have done the opera many times, sang without music, and there was plenty of moving around and interaction from everyone. In fact it was an object lesson in how little has to happen for an opera to feel like it is being dramatically (rather than just musically) realised. It's probably my favourite opera so it's hard to be objective about how effective the set up was, but its cherished status for me means that it's also easy to be critical and I must say I was riveted and entertained throughout, which is more than I can say for some productions I've seen of the piece. How revealing to have Strauss' music for stage and scenery, with much of the action in the minds eye. Strauss gives us it all in his wondrous score which (as with all his operas) is so rich and detailed that it actually can become a challenge to stage.

The ROH used their "Royal Festival Hall" concert shell, with the orchestra on stage, the singers in front, and conductor Andrew Davis amongst the singers, a considerable distance from the orchestral musicians (many of whom weren't facing him as a result.) The concert shell does wonders for the ROH acoustic, at least for the front stalls where the sound can be poorly balanced and muffled. The ROH orchestra with Davis made for an interesting comparison with the Wiener Staatsoper orchestra (ostensibly the Vienna Philharmonic) and Christoph Eschenbach who I saw doing the piece last month (also with Fleming - see my review here). Individually, the playing of the ROH orchestra was sometimes questionable - the opening string sextet had some ropey moments (the offstage sextet sounded magnificent though!) and the gorgeous horn solo that introduces the famous final scene was hesitant and contained at least one crack - but overall this was by far the more convincing performance. The orchestral sonorities were more beautifully and warmly achieved, the underlying flow and momentum that links the fragmentary orchestral writing more convincing here, and the chiaroscuro contrasts of texture were more ably handled by Davis and his orchestra. Davis has a superb measure of the score, and conducts it with obvious love and affection - there were things in the orchestration that I'd never noticed before, and the vocal octets were more brilliantly performed than I have ever heard them before. The pacing always felt right and throughout the words were fully understandable from all - all in all then a superb ensemble achievement, niggles aside.

Renée Fleming did some wonderful things as the Countess Madeleine, proving she still has the goods when it counts. In Vienna last month she sang much better than she did here however - the line was firmer and purer, the text not so exaggerated. It is a common criticism of Fleming that she overinflects the text, and uses expressive portamentos to excess. As a Fleming fan (to put it mildly), these things have never bothered me in the past because the legato is so utterly flawless and in such perfect equipoise with the diction, the basic sound extremely firm and well supported, the phrasing pliant and sensitive, and the text so beautifully coloured by the voice. It's a voice I know supremely well, and here, I sadly felt that she was overcompensating for a slight loss of control that must be disconcerting for her - the scoops were often very extreme, even becoming yelps at times, especially in the more conversational moments where the line is harder to maintain, and sometimes the word stresses became so emphatic that the line was distorted. But then she'd whip out the trademark legato for one of the extended arioso moments and we'd hear the Fleming that we know and love from her recordings. In the final scene, she came on "dressed for dinner" in her Vivienne Westwood sequinned gown, now with a massive gold and silver overcoat, and we got her best singing of the evening - the huge dramatic outpourings which follow the recapitulated sonnet soared with powerful abandon, and the floating pianissimos of her final few phrases were magically dispatched. Fleming can be a very moving actress, but left to her own devices without a director her acting here felt unfocussed and even hammy - lots of pouting, posing questioningly with the sonnet, arm shaking, and the like. Again, she was at her most moving when she opted to do less, simply letting the music flow through her and naturally illuminate her expressions.

Christian Gerhaher was an almost perfect Olivier - I simply cannot think of a currently active singer who could be more ideal for this role. His precision and extraordinary way with the text is totally fitting for the character, but the beautifully balanced timbre and wonderful legato mean that Strauss' music is also fully served. It's a much bigger voice than I remember hearing when he did Wolfram in Tannhauser here back in 2010. Bizarrely and almost amusingly he totally muddled up the words for the sonnet when he was addressing Fleming in plain speech, but even before he went wrong, I thought his delivery of this spoken text wasn't quite heartfelt enough - the only weak part of an otherwise superb vocal assumption of the role. His head was mostly quite buried in the score, so I wonder if this was his first performance of the part?

Andrew Staples, standing in for an indisposed Joseph Kaiser, made an excellent Flamand. His pointing of the text was not quite as nuanced or touching as Gerhaher's but his vocal contribution never felt out of place next to his stellar colleagues, and his beautiful scene in praise of Madeleine was sung with Mozartian clarity and refinement but with Straussian surge when the music asked for it. The timbre is not the most distinctive, or at least not yet, but it is nevertheless very pleasing. A very fine showing for a very fine young singer. Peter Rose was an equally excellent La Roche. It's not the biggest or juiciest bass voice, but his German is excellent, he "gets" the role fully, is funny without buffoonery, and his legato is very good. He seemed to tire a bit towards the end of his climactic speech, but this was another very pleasing performance.

Christine Rice was in such beautiful voice in her recent Minotaur appearances that I was quite sad about her having to cancel these performances of Clairon due to a quite serious illness. I hope she gets better very soon. Her replacement Tanja Ariane Baumgartner made more of this role musically than one might have expected in what is traditionally seen as an actress's role (Strauss makes sure she could never musically upstage his heroine, just as he had with Zdenka/Arabella a decade before). She has a dark coloured mezzo voice that contrasted very nicely with Fleming's silvery soprano, and meant they were never "in competition" as sometimes can seem the case. Bo Skovhus sounded better here than he had in Vienna, less gruff and with a fuller tone, and though arguably the role doesn't require, or even shouldn't be cast with a beautiful voice, the voice is sounding quite hardened and monochrome at this stage, and Skovhus was never the most finessed singer. That said, this wasn't a bad performance, certainly not a disservice to the role. Barry Banks and Mary Plazas made a good pair of Italian singers, Banks being particularly impressive. The female singer is almost always cast with a very light voice, as here, and I never quite know why, because the first entry sits very low for a long time, and the coloratura requirements are hardly demanding.

There's a small but painful cut which the ROH, Vienna and the Met all practise, coming just before the Count suggests his brilliant solution to the other characters' quandary as to what subject to make into an opera. It always jars, because the Counts suggestion simply comes out of the air, and not from the discussion, and so seems out of character for such a professed opera sceptic. Am I the only one that misses this part? Probably.

All in all, a very satisfying evening and a wonderful close to the ROH season. I will (obviously) be at the next performance as well, so will report back on that if I have more to say.

Friday 12 July 2013

Britten Canticles at ROH

Linbury Theatre

Britten's five Canticles remain a relative rarity in the concert hall, but it's not obvious why: his native austerity is combined in these works with a religious simplicity and Anglican sweetness resulting in some of the most direct and immediately accessible pieces in his output. Composed across his career, they fall roughly inline with the operatic output - Canticle I and II around the time of his greatest fertility (approximately, Grimes to the Turn of the Screw), Canticle III a slight hardening into the late-middle operas, Canticle IV sits among the exhausted inspiration of the late 60's and early 70's, and Canticle V is fully in line with the gentle, veiled renewal of Death in Venice and the other late masterpieces.

These pieces were all written for Peter Pears and it seems almost surprising that music that was written explicitly to fit such a singular and unusual voice could be rendered as convincingly by another artist, but so it was here. Ian Bostridge's voice is just as unconventional as Pears's, albeit in a very different way: the almost exclusive use of headvoice, the long stretches of vibratoless yet satisfyingly full and warm sound, the sculpted, leaning phrases and endless tonal shading all conspire to produce one of the easily identifiable vocal personalities singing today. I saw him recently doing the Evangelist in a St. John Passion (not reviewed) and I found it showed up his "home-made" technique in uncomfortable relief, but here the match of singer and repertoire was perfect. Indeed if I ever hear Abraham and Isaac (Canticle II) as ravishingly or movingly sung as this in my life I will count myself very lucky indeed. This one was the clear highlight of the evening, Bostridge's voice blending seamlessly (oh, that overused phrase, but for once entirely appropriate!) with Iestyn Davies's beautiful countertenor (the best I've ever heard him) during the "voice of God" moments, and then in moving counterpoint as father and son.

Surprisingly Bostridge's diction was very muzzy throughout, and first I questioned myself because of his fame for pointing the text, but then when Iestyn Davies arrived for the second Canticle, crystalline of voice, crisp of diction, I realised that I wasn't hearing things. Usually this would bother me greatly, but the intention was always so clear, and the voice so beautiful that I didn't mind this time, despite the lack of subtitles.

Not originally conceived as "dramatic" works, this staging was simple to the point of austerity, and sometimes regrettable obviousness. The first My Beloved Is Mine is staged as a repressed relationship between two young men from the 40's sitting at a dinner table - the parallel with Britten and Pears here was an example of the too obvious I thought. Abraham and Isaac was more successful, a dance piece with god represented by a group of men dancing in unison, and the father and son of Bostridge and Davies mirrored by two dancers (the ROH website doesn't list who). No.3, Still falls the rain was accompanied by a repetitive video piece which matched footage of bombs raining down on various towns with images of Jesus on the cross. For The Journey of the Magi Bostridge and Davies were joined by the young baritone Benedict Nelson, who fully matched them for beauty and clarity and blend. This was barely staged - the three singers were just wearing coats and had suitcases next to them. The last, The Death of Saint Narcissus, was another simple dance piece - a single dancer with his shadow, with the focus squarely on Bostridge and the wonderful harp playing of Sally Pryce. In the other pieces Julius Drake's pianism was a model of clarity and sensitivity, much like his vocal partners, and Richard Watkins's was equally fine in his contribution on Horn in Canticle III. All in all then, it would be hard to imagine a better musical interpretation than this.

Throughout I did keep thinking to myself that it would have been far more satisfactory to have had the singers acting, as that's where the drama was. Ian Bostridge's restless, pensive stage presence, contrasting with Iestyn Davies's scowling seriousness already made for fascinating viewing, and suggested a far more complex and interesting set of tensions than were being presented by the dancers.

Wholly worthwhile for the breathtaking music making.

Thursday 11 July 2013

Hippolyte et Aricie at Glyndebourne


Rameau was one of the major opera composers of the 18th century and probably the only French baroque composer who surpassed Jean-Baptiste Lully, his great 17th century forebear. Already 49 when he composed it, Rameau's first attempt at opera Hippolyte et Aricie was to to be the first of over 30 stage works and although he was already a highly successful and accomplished composer, this spate of operas represents a total shift in direction and a late flourishing in which he expanded and magnified his talents beyond anything that one might have expected from what he had produced before.

Though it's an astonishingly brilliant first attempt, and quite unlike what any of his contemporaries were doing, Hippolyte et Aricie is musically not quite my favourite of Rameau's stageworks (ardent Ramiste though I am) as his harmonic and melodic writing isn't as dazzlingly wide ranging or unbeholden as it later would be. The score is however littered with truly magnificent moments, and Acts IV and V are wholly inspired. Despite its complexity, dramatically the work is very strong and can be presented as a drama of shattering significance. Since the British public/critics have been mysteriously slow to catch on to Rameau's genius, Glyndebourne must be roundly congratulated for mounting this work, especially under William Christie, one of the greatest Rameau interpreters of our age.

Jonathan Kent's production is mercifully far more entertaining than his dull (yet mysteriously beloved by many critics) Fairy Queen that he previously directed for Glyndebourne. The Prologue is staged inside an open fridge: the virginal Diana's chilly realm, her minions crowding around huge consumer products. Cupid, god of erotic passion and therefore her nemesis, hatches from a huge egg and is revealed to be a fiery chicken who then tries to convince Diana's followers to follow his rule. The ballet that ensues is staged with huge broccoli trees, cauliflower clouds, and an orange slice sun. In Act I, Diana's followers celebrate her peaceful nature in the chilled confines of an abattoir whilst stringing up bleeding stags - the dark background to the shiny appearance of the Prologue. Hell is the hot reverse side of the fridge, complete with flies and spiders. The mythical characters are all presented in stylised 18th century garb, whereas the mortals wear modern dress and the Act III family drama is in a normal scale Ikea bedecked house.

Despite the extraordinary beauty and variety of the music, Rameau's operas are often considered difficult to stage because of the extensive dance sequences, and the preponderance of classical references which would have been totally familiar with 18th century audiences can seem a forbidding obstacle for many modern audience members (myself included) who simply aren't familiar with the ins and outs of the mythology and so the characters don't always resonate with the same force, or spark the same associations as they originally would have. This production is an attempt to match the jubilant extravagance that Rameau was aiming at in his own time, and in a way it succeeds in being constantly surprising, and usually engaging. But beyond being basically internally coherent and simply elucidating the classical references (cool/hot, frigid/randy etc.) I think the piece is far more subtle psychologically than it is being presented here.

The actions of the gods are played for laughs, whereas the mortals are taken more seriously, but I'm not sure that such a simple division really gets to the heart of the matter of what is being explored here by composer and librettist. The point of some scenes doesn't seem forcefully enough presented either - as an example the jubilation of the public at the return of Theseus is clearly meant to make the personal humilations of Phaedra's failed seduction and Theseus's realisations even more humiliating and painful in that they both have to bear this hidden pain whilst appearing before an adoring public. Here the clowning of the cartoonish choreography and sailor costumes becomes the focus and detracts from the purpose of the scene.

Most successful is the final Act, here staged in a morgue (an annex of Diana's domain) where Aricie and Hippolyte are reunited/resurrected by Diana and then are finally married in the presence of the goddess. Kent sees this scene as a total victory for Diana, and taking his cue from the music, the ceremony is a joyless, cold affair, in the presence of the ruined and blindfolded Theseus. Phaedra's body is brought out later and she is revived only to be tortured by endless visions of thwarted love (the ballet from Act 1, cleverly and movingly brought back here, the dancers continually thwarted in their romantic embraces). Cupid's limp corpse descends - he has been hanged - while Diana reigns there can be no erotic love for the couple. It's a very dark vision for what is nominally a happy ending, but it's very effective and makes sense in the light of the terrible fates of Theseus and Phaedra.

Musically this production isn't quite as luxurious as William Christie's glorious recording with Les Arts Florissants (which is an embarrassment of riches) - the small Glyndebourne chorus often simply not sounding full enough, and the orchestral sound sometimes seemed a little thin presumably so as not to cover the small voices that had been cast in many of the roles. Still there is much to admire here, and the orchestra do some ravishing things, Christie always managing to present Rameau's textures in the most surprising and beautiful light. Sarah Connolly is a very moving Phaedra, a superlative actress with a lovely voice, and she simply owns the stage in her two major scenes, the second of which is breathtaking. She is the only character who enters and leaves the stage via the pit - not something I fully understood, but somehow it seemed to fit. Stéphane Degout as Theseus is a vocal powerhouse, his bass-baritone perhaps not quite as nuanced as the other singers, but again compelling as a central figure, and he delivered a gorgeous Act V aria and duet with Francois Lis's Neptune, the drooping flute line a beautiful complement from Christie and his OAE players. Lis doubled as Pluto and Jupiter, singing beautifully but lacking the resonance in the low notes to really do these roles full justice. Christiane Karg's shiny soprano and appealing earnestness made her a charming Aricie, matched vocally by the lovely voiced Ed Lyon as Hippolyte. Unfortunately Lyon was not convincing in creating a character onstage, nor in his interactions with his colleagues. Katherine Watson stepped in to perform Diana in place of an indisposed Stéphanie D'Oustrac, and revealed an attractive lyric timbre, with a surprisingly strong chest register, a very good sign, but it's not yet quite fully integrated with the middle register. Following the suit of the rest of the cast, occasionally vocal nuance and focus on diction lead to interruption of the legato line, but this is a promising voice.

Overall this is a worthwhile production, with enough great music making to make the whole thing worth seeing. Let's hope that this is the first of many more Rameau operas at Glyndebourne!

all photos (c) Bill Cooper/Glyndebourne

Saturday 6 July 2013

La Rondine at the Royal Opera House


La Rondine should be one of Puccini's greatest operas, and though it does contain some ravishing music, an actual encounter with the work disappoints. Why should it be great? Although Puccini had pretensions to melodrama and tragedy, it's not actually his most natural habitat, and despite (or more likely because of) his love of cruelty (and technical limitations notwithstanding), he doesn't actually have the artistic means to represent it wholly seriously in art: the plush upholstery of his orchestral writing and arching eroticism of the vocal lines reveal a sensual gratification in pain that blends the two inseparably, giving us an insight into this important partnership, but one which is pornographic in effect because it's so manifestly for his and the audience's pleasure. His other big turn on, sentimentality, is brought to a perfect head in La Boheme and is the main reason why that piece is so successful - he's not only working totally within his area of expertise, but also wholly within his means, and the result is without question his masterpiece. La Rondine is the only post Boheme opera of his that intentionally returns to the exquisitely finished light café-music schmaltz that he is most at home with, and indeed there are several moments which are directly comparable in the two pieces - see for instance the bustling orchestral opening, the bon-homie of the first scene, the bristling colours of Act II, the soupy love duets. La Rondine then is beautifully made, with its endlessly tinkling, humming, pentatonic orchestral canvas, which at times flows with greater ease than anywhere else in his output, and as ever there are also gorgeous arias in their way unmatched by his contemporaries. But despite these passing beauties, the totality doesn't quite convince: we get the feeling that his heart is only half in it. (Is it cruelty that's missing after all?) The libretto by Giuseppe Adami may be to blame for the lack of true comedy - this is meant to be an operetta, but the jokes are very thin indeed, and the "numbers" such as they are, rather tame dramatically and musically and sometimes even bland by his own luscious standards. Despite the evident mastery, ease and fluency, something vital (in both senses of the word) that was present in its slightly more naive predecessor is simply absent here.

Nicolas Joel's now well travelled and well known production sets the action in 1920's Paris, but with Art Nouveau designs (by Ezio Frigerio) which look like they date from about 35 years before that. The fun and dazzle of 20's living combined with the decadence of a Lalique/Mucha aesthetic is an indulgently heady combination and totally in line with the sound of the score. Unfortunately the direction is largely very static which is not good when the libretto is already so undynamic. I found it difficult to be too engaged, though that must also be partly to do with the performances.

Angela Gheorghiu is undoubtedly the principal reason that this production is being mounted, and is also the biggest problem with it. She currently only sings four roles it seems (Magda, Tosca, Mimi, Adriana Lecouvreur) of which I have seen two live at the ROH, and she simply does not have a large enough voice for them. Whether this is by choice, or the manifestation of some vocal problem is debatable (I lean towards the former explanation), but for the first two acts she was rarely sufficiently audible (even on high notes) always delivering the wispiest little line of sweet sound. Intonation is OK, but not as good as it used to be. The vocal cover makes it very controlled but also very unexciting, and the chest voice is nonexistent and even middle voice quite weak - the impression in the theatre is of the lightest of lyric soprano timbres. In the last part of the last act she was finally singing out more, and at least was consistently audible, which suggests that she can in fact do it, but by that stage I just didn't care any more as she had totally failed to deliver a character in sound, and the self regarding acting, apt for this character perhaps, is not engaging enough to compensate. Up close in live and studio recordings the sound can still be marvellously full and beautiful, but it's an illusion in the sense that it doesn't project in the theatre. Is it vocal preservation? A lack of generosity? Simply because she can get away with it and still be hired? I don't know how much longer it can realistically go on - since the repertoire is so small, and she's been doing this for a number of years, it surely can't be too much longer that people will tolerate it...

The rest of the cast seemed purposely chosen not to show up Gheorghiu volume wise, though at least one could usually hear them throughout. Sabina Puértolas is a weak Lisette, but Charles Castronovo as the love interest Ruggero has a very attractive and remarkably dark lyric tenor voice, and he seemed in much more comfortable territory here than in Die Zauberflote earlier this season. It's not a big voice, and I'm not sure how many of the other major Italian roles would suit, despite the heroic colouring: I wonder if he's artificially darkening the voice (though if he is, he's doing it well!). The rest of the cast are all adequate, and Marco Armiliato delivers a respectful, beautiful, but perhaps slightly restrained traversal of the score.

I left the theatre quite disappointed - that Gheorghiu was so inadequate for a title role at the ROH and that the staging failed to make something viable of this likeable but flawed piece.

Tuesday 2 July 2013

DVD Review: The Cunning Little Vixen 1965 Felsenstein Film

Sung in German as Das Schlaue Fuchslein

Vixen: Irmgard Arnold
Fox: Manfred Hopp
Forester: Rudolf Asmus
Badger/Priest: Josef Burgwinkel
Dog/Schoolmaster: Werner Enders
Cock: Frank Volker
Forester's wife: Ruth Schob-Lipka

Director: Walter Felsenstein
Sets: Rudolf Heinrich, Herbert Michel
Costume Design: Rudolf Heinrich, Gundolf Foizik

Conductor: Vaclav Neumann
Orchestra and choir of the Komische Oper Berlin

This opera film was made in 1965 by the great Austrian director Walter Felsenstein. It looks back to an even earlier period of film making in terms of style, an approach which works beautifully here for the subject matter and style of the piece. I don't usually like opera films because of lip syncing, but unusually it really didn't bother me here, and in fact I liked the intimacy of the studio setting.

As The Cunning Little Vixen is one of my favourite operas, I've seen a lot of productions. The animal costumes and choreography in this film are probably the best I've ever seen as both capture something very accurately about the way animals move, look and even breathe. I sometimes despair of productions where it seems like the designers and choreographers have never witnessed any nature first hand, or are simply not sensitive to it, so this is a major plus point of this production. In the love duet between the Vixen and the fox, there's a real sensuality, without recourse to anything that couldn't be shown before the watershed.

All of the singers sing in a very parlando style, stressing diction and characterisation above line and ideal timbre. All are "character" singers in this regard. It works well in the context, though I wouldn't want to hear it like this every time.  The fox is unfortunately cast as a tenor rather than a soprano, and he resorts to barking a bit during the duet. Subtitles are serviceable but aren't always very accurate, in the already changed Max Brod/Felsenstein German libretto which is a bit of a shame.

This performance by conductor Václav Neumann and the orchestra of Komische Oper Berlin links the piece as strongly as possible to the German operatic tradition, via Dvorak and Viennese operetta - the approach to phrasing, sonority, texture and timbre are all very mid century German and quite unlike what we'd hear in this piece today. Overall, I think the opera loses something in this approach as it irons out many of Janacek's quirks, charms and inspirations, smoothing them into something less glistening, less gawky, less sexy and more Romantic, symphonic, Teutonic than the piece really is. But this is still a fascinating historical document in that it lets us hear Janacek how he was seen pre critical editions (and just as importantly pre Charles Mackerras). For that reason (and the fact that it's not in Czech) it can't be a first choice, but for anyone who already has a measure of the work, there is much to enjoy here, and dramatically, this is a touching, superbly observed, and very traditional production of the work. It's the sort of thing I would have loved as a kid, having been given a taste for old style children's shows (Watch with Mother, early-mid Disney (especially Fantasia and Dumbo) and German books from my mother's childhood).

There are two versions of this DVD on the market. I'm told the Arthaus/Naxos one is the better transfer, and is the one I have reviewed here, but I haven't seen the "Immortal" one.

Monday 1 July 2013

La Vie Parisienne at Royal College of Music


Foreign operetta isn't a reliable feature of London operatic life, and so a chance to catch some is always welcome. And a production as well played, sung and designed as this makes one regret its rarity in our big houses even more. (That said, we're getting Die Fledermaus at the ENO this Autumn, which I am greatly looking forward to.) La Vie Parisienne is sort of a strange choice as an end of year production as it really doesn't showcase these young voices very much, which one would have thought would be one of the principle reasons for putting on the show, but anyhow, this was a treat for the audience.

Bob Bailey's designs are quite brilliant, giving the feel of a show much more lavish than one usually experiences at the London music colleges. The back of the stage is a curved sheet onto which various interiors are projected - so we get a train station, a luxurious Parisian apartment, a velvety Moulin Rouge boudoir, and at the end a picture postcard night sky replete with mini Eiffel tower. This innovation is surely a great solution for many small companies that have limited time and space to build sets and backdrops. Set items are minimal but effective - the improvised chairs made out of suitcases in the fake hotel nicely reflect the lies the hapless Lord and Lady Ellington are being told. Mark Doubleday's lighting works unerringly well in tandem with the sets to produce a "showy" and slightly heightened air so that we really get the sense that a show (within a show) is being put on by the characters in the operetta. Kay Shepherd's choreography is simple but effective and she manages to capture the manic energy of the music in the crowd scenes. Unfortunately, Jo Davies' direction was much more problematic.

For a piece as totally sex obsessed as this, this production was a strangely prim, sexless and British affair. Virtually every character is jolly open about how horny they are and how they'd love to have an illicit encounter with someone (but don't tell the wife etc.) however the most Mary-Poppinish titillation is all that is delivered, with no hint that anything might be consummated. Absent too is darkness, pain, jealousy or embarrassment. Women occasionally will hint at their desires, though the production never makes it clear that they are not simply motivated by money, but 75% of the time we're dealing with unapologetic male urges, accompanied by the boundless means to follow these urges.

It makes for a strange atmosphere - the "anything goes" attitude and the absence of any taboos or social convention to thwart, renders everything cheeky but not saucy: sex deprived of sexyness or taboo, everything for entertainment only, delivered with a gormless smile. It's enjoyable and a fun old romp, but where's the frisson, debauchery, camp, subversion, kink? The comedy is also strangely handled - there are plenty of laughs in the libretto, a very convincing and idiomatic translation by Alistair Beaton, but it never seemed that Davies knew why something was funny - so some things hit, and others don't at all. A case in point - Lord Ellington says the French are immoral, and his trousers fall down. This isn't ironic or hypocrisy because your trousers falling down is not a sign of immorality. It's never totally straight, nor is it played for lunacy, instead bridging some awkward middleground where the jokes don't resonate in a social context nor in outrage and delight. The accents are silly, but not that silly, there's lots of clichéd French/English banter, plenty of "isn't opera awful" jokes, all standard stuff. Inexplicably at the end everyone announces that they are going to get married, and it's staged sincerely even although nothing in the libretto or staging has prepared us dramatically for this - no irony or cynicism at all called for here? Worst was the way the dialogue was handled - characters spit out their lines as fast as possible with no break between speakers. The result is that no one is truly responding to what the other has said and so the delivery is rather generic, unfunny and wooden, however much energy or inflection is being put into it. Since the entire cast were doing this, I can't help but put the blame at the foot of the director.

Musically this was an excellent evening, with no weak links in the cast, and boundless energy from Michael Rosewell and the RCM orchestra in the pit. Louise Alder's voice immediately stood out as Gabrielle the Glovemaker, and then in her increasingly elaborate and show stealing scenes (including a superbly delivered yodel song) she distinguished herself as an immediately castable young singer. Her acting is fluent, her movement on stage very natural and her voice is beautifully produced - a shimmery ribbon of excellent legato which never stints on diction (listen to the clips on her website here). Luke D Williams revealed a lovely baritone as Bobinet, and Bradley Travis's Lord Ellington was also very nicely sung. Katherine Crompton's Metella suggested to me that the voice was capable of very much more, and I'd like to see her in some Mozart say. Vasili Karpiak's Brazilian was incomprehensible, and sadly the role did not give him enough legato singing to do, as this was a voice I have very much admired in the past. Matt R J Ward's Frick was teetering so close to camp that it seemed prudish to have held him back. Overall though this was a great ensemble effort, with every single singer showing real promise. The good elements of the production disguised the inept direction to the extent that it was overall a very enjoyable evening.

Death in Venice at ENO


I find it fascinating that so many of the major opera composers went a similar way for their final opera - that is in the direction of thinning out, stripping back, concentration on the essentials. Strauss and Verdi slip into twinkling humour and ravishing delicacy in Capriccio and Falstaff, Mozart into a clarity, reserve and even austerity in La Clemenza di Tito, Janacek into skeletal grittyness in From the House of the Dead, Wagner into soft washes and infinitely nuanced sound clusters in Parsifal. Only Puccini stands out in trying to outdo himself on every level in Turandot. Britten then is completely in line with the main group in his final opera Death in Venice (1971-73) which comes after a period of artistic exhaustion; the etiolation and thinness of the operas of the late 60's (The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966) and The Prodigal Son (1968) and Owen Wingrave (1970)) is transformed, recast, recrystalised into a quietly masterful score that remains "thin", but lives up to the quality of his greatest operas.

(c) Johan Jacobs/ENO

Director Deborah Warner did very well to work with set designer Tom Pye and lighting designer Jean Kalman as this is an exceptionally beautiful show to watch. An idealised Venice is conjured with the simplest of means - a few side lit curtains, some basket chairs, jetty poles, a semi mirrored floor and a backlit cloth that does for an endless expanse of sky. These bright vistas are alternated with the gloomiest, most opaque representations of Aschenbach's artistic constipation - his words are projected into the cavernous dark and are barely legible as he wanders amongst them. Disarmingly simple is also how this staging deals with the canal scenes. The sense of Venice slowly drifting past as it does from the vantage point of a gondola is achieved using large rectangular buildings which calmly glide across the stage whilst the gondolas remain stationary. The other thing the production does well is in how it deals with the dance sequences. Death in Venice in my opinion features one of the most successful uses of dance of any opera. The ballet not only dramatic function (for once) but its use also has a psychological underpinning too: ballet's mysterious silence and ambiguity of  meaning maps perfectly on to the character of Tadzio, Aschenbach's unattainable and unknowable muse. As Tadzio, the young Sam Zaldivar dances beautifully, as do the rest of the boys, the choreography by Kim Brandstrup always apt and inventive.

Thomas Mann's novella seems like an obvious, almost clicheed choice for Britten to adapt and operise (operate?) given his obsessions and predilections, but it's particularly poignant for the artist at this stage of his life, and for Britten, working within his repressions seems to be almost a necessity. Aschenbach's social standing, artistic credos, and dilemma is obviously very close to Britten himself: by 1970 a hugely acclaimed artist, but at a stage of life where he was artistically exhausted and so is in desperate need of a project, a stimulus, the "deep desire" the Aschenbach talks about, to revitalise him. The opening monologue is essentially autobiography:

My mind beats on
and no words come.
Taxing, tiring,
unyielding, unproductive –
my mind beats on.
No sleep restores me.

I, Aschenbach,
famous as a master-writer,
successful, honoured,
self-discipline my strength,
routine the order of my days,
imagination servant of my will.

My mind beats on,
why am I now at a loss?
I reject the words called forth by passion,
I suspect the easy judgement of the heart –
now passion itself has left me,
and delight in fastidious choice.

The boys appear soon enough of course, and even Apollo, Britten's artistic/spiritual master, makes a showing. The work is in some ways a paean to Pears as well, and through him, through the voice that Britten writes with such unerring expertise for, he crafts one of his most intimate and starkly revealing roles, though the palpable eros in the music is at all times suppressed, subsumed, submerged in the hazy gloom and twinkly mist of the score. The piece unfolds mostly as a monologue, Eschenbach narrating his mental state, and his interactions with other people feeling like painful interruptions to his flow of thoughts. The result is obviously very psychologically driven, and the line between inner and outer world is very blurry indeed.

Unfortunately, Warner really doesn't delve into these complexities very satisfyingly at all, and doesn't build an effective dramatic arc through the material. As an example, repetitions in the libretto and music are noted and dutifully staged, but not remarked upon, and we're left in the dark as to what they might mean. Both acts could have finished at any point after the half way mark and it would have felt like a legitimate ending. It just about sustains because it's beautiful to look at, but the insights are few, and dramatic momentum muddled.

Aschenbach must surely be one of the most demanding lyric tenor roles in the repertoire dramatically, physically and musically - he carries the entire piece in all ways. John Graham-Hall barely looks 40 as Aschenbach and presents a more spritely vision of the character than we are used to. Vocally he is very detailed in his approach, every word sensitively wrought, but the character doesn't emerge fully and the basic sound is not beautiful enough to forgive the lack of characterisation. It's a very decent attempt at the part, but overall the figure that is drawn is not compelling enough. The rest of the cast are more than decent and support ably. Tim Mead sings particularly beautiful as the Voice of Apollo. It seems at the moment that Edward Gardner can do no wrong. After his superb Wozzeck he tackles Britten's score with equal aplomb and sensitivity - another great evening for him and his orchestra.

except where noted, photos copyright Hugo Glenndinning/ENO