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Thursday 29 August 2013

2012-13 Season in review

The end of the season, the time when we all feel starved of opera and are raring to go with the next. But I thought I'd just reflect on the 2012/13 season as I think it has been for me the best season since I started this blog.

Staged Opera

1. Der Ring des Nibelungen, ROH. Flawed as it was, my first Ring in the theatre was a total revelation for me, and after years of liking Wagner but not being able to get past my reservations, I now completely "get it" and love it unabashedly. I was totally transfixed for the whole 14 hours.
Das Rheingold
Die Walküre

2. The Minotaur, ROH. A wonderful production of an extremely exciting contemporary opera, with a truly great cast. What more could you ask for? For me this eclipsed Written on Skin, which I couldn't quite love as much as everyone else.

3. Eugene Onegin The Royal Academy of Music's production directed by John Ramster was quite simply one of the best shows I've ever seen, proving decisively that opera does not require huge budgets to be thrilling, moving drama. We knew that already, but it's good to be reminded. Wonderful stuff: so good I saw it twice.

4. Wozzeck, ENO. It's one of my favourite operas, so what a joy to see it so brilliantly directed by a debut opera director, and with a superb cast too. So good I saw it twice. I'd seen the very good WNO Lulu just before which made for a fascinating comparison. (I'm proud of the reviews I wrote for these two productions so if you read any, read those!)

5. Gloriana, ROH. This show got mixed reviews, and most reviewers took issue with the score, but I found it immensely enjoyable, with Susan Bullock a magnetic central presence, and Richard Jones' production unbeatable. So much beautiful music to be had in this score: so good I saw it twice.

6. Ariadne auf Naxos Glyndebourne. Again, this got very bad reviews from most, but I found this to be the most moving and telling production of Ariadne that I've ever seen, and this is a very cherished opera for me. So good I saw it twice. My review explains why!

7. Billy Budd Glyndebourne. Magical evening where music, stage, singing, acting, conducting, playing were all in perfect accord. So good I saw it twice.

Other notable mentions: Lohengrin with WNO was a good production, with some great singing - my other great Wagner experience this season. Don Carlo at the ROH somehow didn't quite add up for me, but I was lucky enough to see Harteros on opening night, and she was magnificent (as were the rest of the cast). Medea at the ENO had a very nice cast, and was a stunning production, though the score was not quite as thrilling as had been promised by McVicar. Death in Venice at the ENO and The Emperor of Atlantis with ETO were also beautiful to look at, but didn't quite deliver in other respects.

Disappointments: I didn't have any expectations going into Robert Le Diable at the ROH, but I still left disappointed that so much effort and money had been lavished on this piece of flim flam. Some serious reviewers found things to enjoy, but I cannot fathom how. Kasper Holten's fussy, dramatically weak, Eugene Onegin raised alarm bells for the next decade of the ROH, but one has to remain hopeful for the upcoming Don Giovanni. Nabucco and La Rondine were also lowlights.


Some of my very best experiences this season were concert/semi staged performances of operas:

1. Knussen double billBarbican. Revelatory - overwhelmingly beautiful contemporary operas.
2. Into the Little Hill, Wigmore Hall. George Benjamin's first opera captivated me, where Written on Skin had left me a little cold. Superb piece.
3. Capriccio, ROH. My favourite opera served by an excellent cast. Catnip for Capriccioblog. So good I saw it twice.
4. Britten Canticles, ROH. Britten, Ian Bostridge, Iestyn Davies. Enough said.

5. Other things: At the Royal Festival Hall with Jurowski, Karita Mattila gave an astonishing account of the final scene of Salome, despite some serious vocal issues. Knussen at 60, of which the abovementioned double bill was a part, was a wonderful event. I experienced some truly excellent chamber music too this season. In Belgium I saw Britten's String Quartet no.2 as part of Festival Resonances (not reviewed) in a superlative performance that managed to capture both the extraordinary diamantine beauty of surface of this quartet and the composer's deep pain, manifest as a sort of eerie emptiness at the music's heart. A curious mixture of Apollonian reserve and psychological intensity, both such hallmarks of Britten's oeuvre, was shatteringly conjured by Katharine Gowers, Beatrice Philips, James Boyd and Martijn Vink. Philips and Boyd were again present for the totally extraordinary Lewes Chamber Music Festival concert of Janacek's On an Overgrown Path that reduced me to uncontrollable tears. Violinist Pekka Kuusisto's recital at the Wigmore Hall proved once again that he is one of the few essential artists of the age. The London Haydn Quartet also gave some very interesting late Beethoven at the Conway Hall, played as if an extension of Haydn; but what really sticks in my mind is their Protean performance of Haydn's quartet op.50/4 that made late Beethoven look tame: too explicable, too rounded, too complete next to it!!

Disappointments: Maria Guleghina and Christiane Oelze (neither reviewed) were both great artists in their prime, but I had to leave at the interval for both of their Wigmore recitals (the latter with Pierre Laurant Aimard) because the voices had declined so much. Pretty Yende also made a disappointing Wigmore debut (not reviewed), revealing a shining voice, but totally monotonous musicianship. She's very young still, and so has time to develop, but the intimacy of a solo recital revealed her flaws rather than her strengths. Joyce Didonato's Drama Queens at the Barbican was dispiriting because she was virtually inaudible from the 11th row of the stalls, but at least I discovered the astonishing musicianship of violinist Dmitry Sinkovsky.

All in all a very enjoyable season for me. The complete list of my 2012/13 reviews are available on this handy page (also linked on the right there). Roll on 2013/14!!!

Monday 26 August 2013

DVD Review: Der Rosenkavalier 2009 Baden Baden with Fleming, Koch, Damrau, Kaufmann and Thielemann


Feldmarschallin: Renée Fleming
Octavian: Sophie Koch
Sophie: Diana Damrau
Baron Ochs: Franz Hawlata
Faninal: Franz Grundheber
Italian Singer: Jonas Kaufmann
Annina: Jane Herschel
Valzacchi: Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Marianne Leitmetzinen: Irmgard Vilsmaier

Conductor: Christian Thielemann
Direction, set, costumes: Herbert Wernicke

Herbert Wernicke's production of Der Rosenkavalier is updated but not to a specific historical time, which saves it from the pedantry and overload of so many "traditional" Rosenkavalier productions. It is however also relatively uninterventionist in terms of presenting the opera, so there's no Regie theatre excesses to worry about either - the adjective "timeless" for once seems a reasonable word to use. The revival direction is surprisingly good, with lots of lovely details of characterisation, and most of the principals seem totally physically and vocally at ease with their roles, giving them a real freedom and immediacy on stage. Christoph von Bernuth is listed as director's assistant but considering that Wernicke had long been dead when this was filmed can we assume that this is a synonym for revival director?

The set is comprised of enormous mirrors which reflect different backgrounds (mostly of ultra opulent 18th century interiors) and can be quickly rotated to produce different atmospheres and settings. A smaller mirrored screen demarcates a more intimate area for the opening bedroom scene (and subsequently also the seamier bedroom in Act III); the floor is also a mirror. Costumes and hairstyles do not anchor anything down and come from a mix of eras - the lackeys look 18th century, the rest 20th century. It doesn't feel like a mishmash because these questions of style are never the point of the production. I have expressed my reservations before about totally "traditional" 18th century Rosenkavaliers - I simply don't think that the glutinous beauty and frenetic nervosity of Strauss' score reflects that era at all, and the excuse for clutter, fussiness and ahistorical kitsch that Der Rosenkavalier seems to bring out of directors of a certain bent is happily sidestepped if it's updated in some way. (I think Strauss' own time of composition works wonderfully with the music and makes sense dramatically too - the fading upper classes, rising middle classes, the feeling that old Vienna was on the way out, the coming of the Great War - we are dealing with a Feldmarschal remember, and it's oft forgotten that Faninal has made his millions as an arms dealer...) Non-historical settings can sometimes be bland and characterless, but somehow this production does manage to conjure a sort of fictional society that is reasonably believable, if not quite as meticulously detailed as what Hoffmannsthal and Strauss intended. We can however imagine these characters out of their immediate context, which for me is a decent measure of how believable the story telling is.

The Act II duet is a coup de theatre and time stands still: Octavian arrives on a huge flight of stairs, the couple in a curious suspension above the main stage, only descending down the steps and back to earth at the end. The servants have disappeared, making it a more intimate scene than is normally the case. The lederhosen donning Ochs turns out to be not just unbearably impolite, but in fact totally outrageous to Sophie, and her anger is very real and wholly justified, much as she tries to make the best of it at first. When he sings his waltz song she is sobbing on the floor, and he leers over her, clearly enjoying his power. Grim. The Act III farce is only intermittently funny, acceptably choreographed to the music, but relies a little too much on Hawlata's improvisational ingenuity - if he didn't know the role so well I think it would be very dry indeed and many actions are expanded far too much in time. I've never seen the masquerade totally convincingly staged I have to say, and like in most productions, things focus again at the re-entrance of the Marschallin.

This Marschallin has an iron fist inside the velvet glove and her dismissal of Ochs is extremely firm (and therefore satisfying). The final trio and its preceding scene are beautifully handled. Sophie's costume subtly mirrors the Marschallin's, underlining the hinted at similarity between the two women from the first act, which is of course the reason for the Marschallin's vexation with Ochs. The young couple's blissful love is for once as believable and stirring as the Marschallin's sighing resignation, making the conflict and eventual resolution bittersweet yet tolerable, when so often there's the suspicion that the new relationship is flimsy and only skin deep. At the final curtain Mohammed, here a Pierrot (presumably for reasons of political correctness), appears and replaces the silver rose with a real one - a symbol of nature and true love triumphing over formalised, arranged, economically prudent courtship.

I've noted before on this blog that Renée Fleming is not at her best as an actress in light comedy mode, so despite some nice moments from her in the opening scene, she comes across as a bit artificial (though nothing like as bad as in the Met production, see below). But at "Mein lieber Hippolyte" and then from "Da geht er hin" to the end of the first act she suddenly focuses vocally and acting wise to give one of the best performances of her career. For that glorious half hour scene and indeed the rest of the opera she fully becomes the Marschallin and in this exceptionally pained portrayal she takes the role further than any of her colleagues on DVD. Catching every subtle play of emotion in the score, she channels it through the myriad colours of her voice, and her superb attention to the text combined with her perfect legato gives full thrift to Strauss' inspired vocal writing. Physically too the embodiment becomes completely natural, and her interactions with Octavian are heartrending as he struggles to understand why she is pushing him away. What is so impressive is how specific and improvisatory everything feels: there is no question that this is coming from a place of very genuine emotion.

[As an aside: anyone who saw the Met Rosenkavalier HD Broadcast that Fleming did in early 2010 will be very surprised with this DVD. In fact, I'm staggered at the difference in quality between that broadcast and the present DVD. Filmed in 2009 (in my opinion the last year of her vocal prime) her voice is in much better shape in Baden Baden: a better supported line, unexaggerated, and simply more beautiful, (listen for instance to her unbelievable opening phrase in the trio) but what differs most markedly is her physical and emotional portrayal of the Marschallin. Whereas in the Met production she is completely self indulgent, mugging and swanning about, and as a result is not very likeable, in Baden Baden she gives one of the most compelling performances of the Marschallin that I have ever seen. The only explanation I can proffer is the different direction that she's responding to. It doesn't help of course that the Met one is filmed like a soap opera and is in the Met's mega kitsch, tackily costumed and now dated looking production (demonstrating so much of what is wrong artistically with the Met).]

Initially I didn't at all like Sophie Koch as Octavian, finding her vibrato too wide, her acting overdone, and her ultra mobile mouth too distracting with all the closeups. But having seen this DVD several times now, I think she makes an excellent casting choice in being so contrasted with Fleming's precision and vocal beauty - in the latter half of Act I, the difference between Octavian's youthful ardour and unsophisticated bluff and the Marschallin's philosophical wistfulness has never seemed so irreconcilable or poignant. This alone is worth the price of admission and makes it one of the moving versions on DVD.

Diana Damrau's Sophie is not an unqualified success - there are some good things vocally, but the phrasing frequently bulges unmusically (explosions of vibrato after straight tones), and she doesn't have that crystalline purity of tone that one associates with the greatest Sophies. However, I like her minxy acting and that in this production she's not an air headed ditz - we know that she's a proud, slightly spoiled brat, but she's clever and sympathetic too, and her joy in the final scene is palpable. Her final conversation with the Marschallin is another lovely piece of characterisation.

Franz Hawlata's Ochs is brilliantly horrible: his half closed, inward looking, plaice-like eyes and unflagging sense of entitlement perfectly produce a portrait of insuperable egocentricity and supreme self satisfaction. He is in no way a manipulator or intriguer: he genuinely believes in his own superiority and irresistibility, the real world merely bouncing off his unassailable self belief. Vocally Hawlata is far from opulent, but his experience with the part makes this demanding and not particularly grateful role seem like a walk in the park.

Franz Grundheber is vocally far past his best, but he makes more of Faninal than we often see. Jonas Kaufmann is a very unitalian Italian tenor, but oh my what a delicious cameo - certainly the best sung I've heard this infamously difficult aria.

Christian Thielemann conducts the Munchner Philharmoniker and the sound is glorious - full and rich, the orchestral picture always detailed, with superb phrasing and large contrasts of weight and character. It's not quite as subtle or ravishing as Eschenbach is with the Wiener Philharmoniker on the wonderful Fleming Strauss Heroines disc, but Thielemann is sprightly and driven, and supports the singers just as well.

A very worthwhile DVD, absolutely essential for anyone who loves this repertoire.

Saturday 17 August 2013

DVD Review: L'incoronazione di Poppea 2008 Glyndebourne


Poppea: Danielle de Niese
Nerone: Alice Coote
Ottone: Iestyn Davies
Ottavia: Tamara Mumford
Seneca: Paolo Battaglia
Drusilla: Marie Arnet
Arnalta: Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Nutrice: Dominique Visse

Director: Robert Carsen
Set Designer: Michael Levine
Costume Designer: Constance Hoffman

Conductor: Emmanuelle Haim
Orchestra of the Age of Englightenment

This is a slightly odd production of Monteverdi's great masterpiece. Carsen gets his cue almost solely from the Prologue which sees Cupid victorious in an argument with Fortune and Virtue about who has the most power. Carsen makes it a play within a play of sorts - Cupid hijacks an already started production of some other parable, to present his own story in which love is shown to be the most important force in shaping the lives of the characters. Garbed in red velvet like the omnipresent red velvet curtains and sheets that feature in the production, Cupid is present as an invisible shaper of events for much of the rest of the opera. While it is true that this opera is eros obsessed, the minimalism of the setting and the stripping away of political and social context takes with it much of the piece's richness, subtlety and interest. It's clear from the opening that Nero's world is meant to be that of the Glyndebourne audience's and so the blanks are meant to be filled in by this audience reflection, but this common director's trick rarely comes off in my experience. All in all there's just so much more that this piece can offer.

But there are positives. This production does do the sex very well indeed - the arching eroticism of the scenes between Nero and Poppea is extraordinarily intense (though perhaps doesn't evolve as much as it could do.) and the visual aesthetic supports this luxuriant intimacy. I find Alice Coote to be an awkward stage presence, especially in trouser roles, but she sings gloriously here, with huge dynamic and timbral range. Danielle de Niese is a fascinating and gorgeous presence as Poppea, not just physically, but vocally too - she's really committed to communicating every syllable of the text. Her breathing is very rough here which sometimes interferes but it's not a major defect. Her Poppea is turned on by Nero the man as much as she is by power - like Nero, she is a creature of emotion, and as a result for her the two can't be separated - her ambition is in a sense innocent. Nero's character is given a disturbing darkness in the scene following Seneca's dispatch - a homosexual encounter at a drunken party devolves into a cold blooded murder: his power unchecked, it seems only extremes of emotion can please him. The ending is strong: Poppea envelops herself in her enormous regal gown, but cannot leave it behind despite Nero's promptings, and we see that without external obstacles they are already drifting apart. Famously of course, Nero killed her less than a year later (as everyone is keen to point out in the DVD extra), kicking her in the stomach when she was pregnant with their second child, so this ending is clearly intended as an early intimation of this rift.

Tamara Mumford as Ottavia reveals an absolutely gorgeous voice, and she's a touching actress too, even if her role in this production is more rich woman spurned, than empress wronged. I also very much liked Paolo Battaglia in lovely voice as Seneca, and Iestyn Davies as a gentle, boyish Ottone.

Possibly the greatest beauty of this production comes from the pit though - Emmanuelle Haim leads the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a ravishing account of this score, endlessly shaded through sensitively selected changes in instrumentation. This is possible largely due to the enormous cavalcade of continuo players (10 in all plus Haim at the harpsichord and organ!) and the orchestral support in the love scenes is particularly noteworthy, surely accounting for a major part of their spine tingling intensity. Probably best that you just experience for yourself:

Tuesday 13 August 2013

DVD Review: Stefan Herheim's Eugene Onegin 2012 De Nederlandse Opera

Opus Arte

Tatyana: Krassimira Stoyanova
Onegin: Bo Skovhus
Lensky Andrej Dunaev
Olga: Elena Maximova
Madame Larina: Olga Savova
Filipyevna: Nina Romanova
Prince Gremin: Mikhail Petrenko

Director: Stefan Herheim
Set designer: Philipp Furhofer

Conductor: Mariss Jansons
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
De Nederlandse Opera

This is not an Onegin for those that haven't seen the piece before - it's not impenetrably complex, but a very good knowledge of the "standard" narrative would help hugely in unravelling the games being played here with plot and memory. It opens on a brilliant coup de theatre - a "split screen" introducing the the dual worlds that are being depicted in this production - the Russian oligarchy of today, and a sentimentalised kitsch vision of peasant Russia. It's not totally clear why Tatyana remembers her youth as occurring so long before it actually did though; perhaps Herheim is suggesting that Russians sentimentalise their own history and youths? Olga is a vision of naive peasantry, youth and happiness - a reminder to Tatyana of what she has left behind as we see Tatyana amongst her high society guests. Olga's aria becomes accusatory, or at least some sort of expression in Tatyana's guilt.

The letter scene is presented as the fulfilment of Tatyana's wish (Onegin is present, at least in her mind), and simultaneously, Onegin writing his letter with the same message to her as he does later in Act III in the conventional narrative. (Though of course we don't normally get to see it on stage, reference is made to his letter in the final scene, and Onegin gets the same letter writing music when he realises he's in love with Tatyana). We already know this second letter writing event happens, so I'm not sure how much of an insight this is beyond the initial surprise of the new staging. For newcomers it'll be totally baffling and inexplicable. It's tempting to have Tatyana address the actual Onegin onstage because the letter is doing this, but for me, the sense of the unknown is what makes this scene so moving and tense - we know she is fantasising - do we need to see the fulfilment of this fantasy onstage? Still, it's much more subtly and discreetly handled than the comparable version in Kasper Holten's dramatically null ROH staging, the first of many parallels between the two productions (not all of which I've mentioned here). I also didn't quite get what was added  in the following scene by having Onegin address his rejection to a double of Tatyana- yes we get to see the older Tatyana reliving the scene, but by this stage the theme is so clear, that it's weird to just get the same thing again, especially when the double Tatyana (a dancer) is so bad at acting.

Herheim sees the whole piece as being about the loss of ideals - most obviously Tatyana and Lensky's loss of the ideal of innocent romantic love - and mirrors this in the staging with the loss of the big ideals that Russia has suffered during the 20th century. At the end of the Larina ballroom scene Lensky seems to embrace Tatyana's little red book - replacing his naive poetic Romanticism with Communism, and he goes on to direct some troops to exact his revenge on the crowd. But soon the star of Communism is seen in flames and then smashed on the floor during the duel - the communist ideal being replaced with Onegin's playboy Capitalism and the rich Russian oligarchs of his world. It's interesting that Herheim makes these parallels, but what is it actually adding dramatically here? Again after the initial surprise has faded and we've worked out Herheim's code, I can't help feeling that this is a little jejune. Perhaps I'm missing a subtlety.

The Larina ballroom scene is somewhat clumsily staged and the revolving room feels artificial almost the whole time. Maybe it was different in the theatre but the feeling of larger and smaller spaces that the set design is meant to enable doesn't really come across - the pure aesthetics of the "stage picture" are probably the weakest aspect in almost all of Herheim's productions. In the intro to Act III we get a view of 20th century Russian cliches as seen by western Europe (which gets a round of applause from the audience!). Gremin reappears at the end of the final duet (again just as in Holten's production) as does the rest of high society at Gremin's instigation, who witness Onegin's failure, shame and impotence.

Krassimira Stoyanova, in her role début, gives a radiant account of Tatyana, with committed acting that serves the staging very well. She has a little trouble convincing physically as the young Tatyana, but this production plays so much with time frames that this isn't a huge obstacle. She has a rich chest register, warm middle and lovely top, and sings with expressive nuance and technical expertise. It's a very beautiful timbre and sounds great up close on the mics, but the top is very covered which certainly doesn't sound as good in the theatre and was one of my main reservations about her in live performance earlier this year that I saw in the Holten ROH production. Still, a remarkable debut.

Bo Skovhus is a classic barihunk; possibly only Hvorostovsky is better looking of the major international baritones. He often moves awkwardly on stage, hunched and stumbling, which works reasonably well in this production with its characterisation of Onegin as constantly being on the back foot. Vocally he is entirely adequate, but he is not a first choice with all the excellent Onegins currently performing. Skovhus has a passing resemblance to Herheim himself looks wise, but weirdly so does tenor Andrej Dunaev, to an even greater degree. Again he's more than acceptable in the role, but the timbre is not the most beautiful and one might wish for a little more nuance from a character who is meant to be a poet. The rest of the cast are all more than acceptable.

Mariss Jansons gives a slightly weird account of the score, extremely lush and beautifully played by the Concertgebouw Orchestra, but somehow too polished and smooth to sound truly Russian. Where's the raw Slavic soul? A nebulous and intangible criticism perhaps and few will complain when the playing is of such high quality.

The first ten minutes of this production had me thinking that this might be one of the best DVDs on the market, but overall, though very enjoyable, I'm not sure that the interventions add enough to our understanding of the piece for this to escape being an egoistic project - too often I felt this was merely "Herheim's Onegin". That is the production made me think of Herheim rather than the opera, and for me for Regie theatre to be successful, it has to reveal the piece to us anew and bring us closer to the work and its meaning, rather than being a canvas on which the director is allowed to exercise his fantasy, however well intentioned. There's a creeping way in which this is every bit as camp and "fabulous" as any Franco Zeffirelli extravaganza. Others will disagree, and your mileage may vary; it's certainly worth a watch.

Sunday 11 August 2013

L'elisir d'amore and Les pêcheurs de perles at Opera Holland Park

Les pêcheurs de perles 03/07/13
L'elisir d'amore 16/07/13

I somehow forgot to finish and post these reviews a month ago, but include them here now for completeness' sake before my season round up.

I've already gone on at length on this blog about why I'm so keen on L'elisir d'amore (You can read my thoughts here.) but needless to say that I've never yet tired of it in all the times I've seen it. Director Pia Furtado sets the opera in the present day on a sunflower plantation, Nemorino and the chorus a group of workers, and Adina a sort of figurehead of the organisation (she's on the advertising, but far too relaxed and casual to be the owner of the business - perhaps it's daddy's business, which would fit her brattish sense of entitlement). The set (designed by Leslie Travers) is a view into the interior of a greenhouse with the back ends of two lorries which have reversed into the space.

The army inexplicably show up, Belcore apparently famous with the locals and somewhat of a laughing stock too. Right at the beginning we're introduced to Dulcamara, in this production a deeply creepy hippyish type - who sneaks around during the prelude, before we know who he is (since Nemorino is in the first scene this is quite a nice sleight of hand as we at first assume that we are being introduced to the romantic lead).

The first act is mostly well handled. Sarah Tynan's Adina is self aware, self assured and loves being admired - she thinks she knows everything about men, despite her young years. George von Bergen's Belcore feels an equal sense of entitlement, but is much more naive, and so is a laughing stock as he doesn't "get it". Aldo Di Toro's Nemorino is as sincere and serious as one could hope for. The chatty, gossipy crowd create a bustling atmosphere, though the soldier's dance moves are a bit hard to credit. The "set up", as it were felt strong for second act, but unfortunately I felt there was less detail and subtlety in the second half - the all important scene that follows Una Furtiva Lagrima not quite yielding the insights and dramatic potential that are available here. I also thought that more could have been drawn out of the women's infatuation with Nemorino, but overall it's a fun evening, it never drags, and is an engaging if not challenging view of the piece.

Sarah Tynan uncannily recalls actress Sheridan Smith in the first Act, not just in her looks, but in her flirty demeanour too, though she becomes considerably more restrained and serious in the second act. Vocally she is in control and expressive, possessing a fairly attractive full lyric sound, though the vibrato is sometimes a shade wide and slow for comfort in the upper reaches of the voice. Aldo di Toro's Nemorino is equally well sung, with long lines, a good feeling for style, and a bright, slightly "complaining" timbre that fits the character's sense of self pity. George von Bergen's Belcore is vocally a very gruff and loud, but the timbre is very "muddy" in the sense that every tone contains a lot of harmonics not in the fundamental. Geoffrey Dolton is hyperactive as Dulcamara, and the suite of characterisations he has fashioned for his character (e.g. the wobbling head, the constantly outstretched tongue) make him hard to watch. Vocally he is fine, though rather small scale. Conductor Steven Higgins leads a sprightly and beautiful account of the score, though one which doesn't always give enough dramatic thrust to the music. Still far better than one often hears.

Two weeks earlier (03/07/13) I attended Opera Holland Park's production of Bizet's The Pearlfishers. I love Bizet's music, and so really lament the fact that so much of it is marooned in dull or farfetched plots with poor librettos, which render so many of his operas all but unviable for the stage. So it is with The Pearlfishers whose plot is stock, characters bland and conclusion wholly unsatisfying. Yet this unengaging text enshrines a gorgeous score, which while not as dramatically vivid or quite as memorable as Carmen, is nevertheless just as beautiful and pleasurable to experience for those predisposed to French opera.

The singing was generally quite good. Soula Parassidis made a beautiful Leila whose very covered and dark soprano surprises in scaling significant heights. The brittle top sounded best in the dramatic outbursts of the final few scenes. Grant Doyle and Jung Soo Yun were decent as her suitors Zurga and Nadir, steady and secure, though failing to make a great impact in the very difficult acoustics of the OHP theatre.

The problem with this production is that it didn't interpret the libretto imaginatively enough: characters remained bland and unspecific, the political subtext unexplored, the setting a cod Indian society with the main set item a sheet on pulleys, put to work as a net and a tent. The real Indian dancers were a nice touch, but weren't enough to distract from the dullness of the rest. The result failed to make a compelling case for the opera as a viable dramatic entity.

Billy Budd at Glyndebourne


It's for evenings like this that the word Gesamtkunstwerk was coined. When all aspects of a production resonate together as coherently and powerfully as they did here, you remember again why it is that you sit through the many mediocre or even merely good opera performances: there is simply nothing as magnetically engaging and shatteringly powerful as this art form when it is done right.

On CD, Billy Budd can be a hard listen - the booming all male cast can become oppressively unvaried timbrally and the score is one of the toughest and least ingratiating that Britten had written by this stage of his career (1951) despite some magnificent moments. But in this production/realisation of Britten's opera these concerns don't even arise: director Michael Grandage (with excellent revival direction by Ian Rutherford) and designer Christopher Oram have conspired to produce a show where stage and score are in perfect equipoise; the visuals become inseparable from the sound, the set a resonating chamber for the music, the music losing all sense of formal or aesthetic procedure and instead becomes the drama, atmosphere, characters. I have previously watched the production on DVD and was not that enthralled, but comparison to this live show shows how woefully inadequate the transfer from stage to screen can be and how different they are as mediums.

The set consists of a view into the hull of HMS Indomitable, the ship on which the sailors find themselves, rendered in Oram's designs with awesome grandeur and beautiful attention to detail. The ship envelops the men and indeed the entire theatre like a huge womb, every surface bowed, curved, and it is hopefully not too fanciful to suggest that "she" provides the feminine element of the production. Changes of scene are achieved with the simplest of means - the rafters descend to create the cramped conditions of the lower decks, and for Captain Vere's cabin the space is transformed by the addition of a few windows near the front of the stage. Just as often a change of scene is managed using lighting, Paule Constable proving once again that she may well be the best lighting designer we have on these shores - it would be a very different production without her expertise. The brilliance of this design is not just that it looks and feels so atmospheric; the fact that the ship remains stationary and virtually unchanged throughout offers a very strong psychological underpinning to the production - the vessel is inescapable and claustrophobic, but also strangely comforting - the men cannot leave the ship, but they are also wedded to it and bound together by it. The character regie is simple and fairly traditional, but totally engrossing because it's so carefully observed and specific - there are simply too many touching moments to mention, but every relationship feels not just believable but fully real.

this picture doesn't even begin to do it justice

Musical values are very high indeed. Andrew Davis must be thanked in large part for allowing stage and score to blend with such choreographic and psychological precision - with conducting like this, suspension of disbelief is almost not required, so transported are you by the events that are unfolding. Singers are always fully audible and ideally supported by the superb playing of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and orchestral textures, whether glowering or shimmering, unfailingly make a dramatic as well as musical impact. The cast is uniformly of a very high standard and the whole thing is a real ensemble effort. In the choral scenes, the men's voices seem to emanate from the very bowels of the ship and the climaxes achieve a thrilling, sometimes brutal power. Jacques Imbrailo's slightly fluttery and youthful sounding baritone makes him a very distinctive Billy Budd, and his barely contained youthful ebullience and radiant, almost feminine energy, make it easy to see why he is so attractive to the other sailors. Brindley Sherratt, continuing a string of operatic successes, makes a wonderful Claggart, restrained and fearsome, the voice appropriately oleaginous, opaque and orotund, beautiful, even seductive. One of Britain's finest singers. Mark Padmore's gentle "starry Vere" is not as beautiful of voice as he might have been earlier in his career, but this opera is hardly about bel canto, and his is a touching and expertly sung assumption of the role. I know I'm meant to give balanced criticism, and mention negatives along with positives, and I could name a couple of minor cast members who convinced me slightly less than the rest dramatically, but it would be cavilling in the face of a truly brilliant ensemble achievement.

What an extraordinary end to the Glyndebourne season.

photos copyright Richard Hubert-Smith/Glyndebourne

NOTE!!! If you are under 30 there are still £30 stalls tickets available for the performance on the 22 August. Just do it.