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Thursday 29 May 2014

Rosenkavalier with Schwanewilms, Connolly, Crowe, LSO, Elder

With Glyndebourne's new Der Rosenkavalier not yet opened, and the Birmingham performance just around the corner, this concert acted as a wonderful taster menu of this opera, taking all the most delicious cuts of that score, immaculately prepared with the finest ingredients. The good music of Der Rosenkavalier is so great that the opera always comes to mind if I'm asked to list my favourite ten operas (or whatever the latest twitter game might be.) In a great performance with three great female voices, there is little to match it for sheer sonic beauty. The whole thing is made even more moving by Hofmannsthal's wonderful libretto, and again in the hands of an artist who can respond to its nuance and gentle colours, there is little like it in the repertoire. But the appalling languors of the opera, the huge stretches of routine, always stick in my throat, and make the piece exceptionally difficult to stage effectively in my experience, that is, to make it a fully convincing, engaging evening.

These concerns don't arise in a concert performance of highlights, and this generous selection, lasting well over an hour, was pure pleasure from start to finish. We first got the opening sequence - the sex/orgasm overture, afterglow, morning light, Mohammed's interruption, and coffee. The chemistry between Anne Schwanewilms' Marschallin and Sarah Connolly's Octavian was so believable and tender, that I'm not sure I've seen anything more erotic on an operatic stage this year. Funny how the acting can be so much more natural, intimate and engaging without all the other trappings of grand oper: sets, wigs, 'realistic' period costumes, and perhaps most crucially without a long rehearsal process which can kill spontaneity. A 50 year old woman trying to look like a 17 year old boy isn't sexy. A 50 year old woman playing male teenage passion and frustration is. I often find opera singers' acting to be more moving in concert performances, perhaps also because one is often so much nearer (other people on twitter were quick to blame nefarious directional interference (read: regie theatre directors) for this discrepancy when I mentioned it there.I think it can be a straw man - how many of those sorts of productions are there really? In my experience, singers are just as often disengaged and just "walking a part" in traditional productions).

Then with the same two singers, we got the Marschallin's monologue, the final half hour of the first act. Where in the first act Schwanewilms had been all smiles and hand caresses, here she was preternaturally still, and barely even looked at Connolly, who looked not just upset, but destroyed, her eyes red lakes of fear and sadness. Text book being an obstacle to your fellow actor from Schwanewilms! She has one of the most interesting and strangely beautiful soprano voices on the stage today, and chooses to access an enormous palette of vocal colours so that each phrase, each word, is delicately but precisely shaded. Though she can spin a shimmering legato line with the best of them (Her "Da drin ist die silbernc Ros'n" and "Hab' mir's gelobt" were both exquisite), in Strauss she more often chooses to utilise an intimate parlando, and the gentle strength and resonance in the middle and lower register means that this approach works. Her great forebear in the infinitely nuanced vocal line is of course Schwarzkopf, and though the approach is similar, the effect is very different - with Schwarzkopf you get the feeling that every single detail was sculpted and polished in advance, immaculately prepared, but animated in the moment by her smiling spirit. With Schwanewilms it all feels much more spontaneous, that she "lets" the voice do what it will in that moment, whilst playing the intention that she has. This has benefits and drawbacks. On the one hand she is able to truly react physically and vocally to anything her stage partners might throw at her, which means she is always engaging and always "on"; on the other hand, the voice can occasionally do something quite unexpected and unbelcanto - one of her mannerisms is a single bell like note that is totally disconnected from the line, especially for a sudden leap above the stave. I often get the feeling with her voice that she is masterfully, but constantly, navigating a fundamentally 'bumpy' vocal topography that is intrinsic to the voice. Again there is a similarity here to Schwarzkopf (though with Schwarzkopf the feeling is much less acute as the basic vocal technique was so exceptionally well controlled), who one also feels sometimes has found a creative technical or expressive solution to a fundamental, intrinsic unevenness in the vocal mechanism, however beautiful the timbre is. The opposite would be say Tebaldi, whose vocal registration has an absolutely smooth topography as she moves up and down the scale. I personally enjoy the colours and quiddities of Schwanewilms's voice because the expressive intent is always so clear, the connection with text is immediate and nuanced, and the voice has just combination of shimmer and depth. She will often do something quite unexpected with a familiar phrase which means one can hear this much loved music afresh.

This is all to say that she is an exceptionally accomplished and moving Marschallin, and now that Fleming, the greatest Marschallin since Schwarzkopf, is declining and only inconsistently at her best, Schwanewilms may well be the finest exponent of this role on the stage today. Refined, noble, wistful, thoughtful, beautiful: I certainly don't know of anyone I would prefer to hear in this role currently.

Sarah Connolly is still surely the most handsome performer of travesti roles around, and one hopes that she will continue to sing them into her sixth decade, when traditionally mezzos start giving them up. The voice and approach is very different from Schwanewilms' which makes her an excellent partner in this opera. Connolly has a much more traditional, consistent vocal production, capable of delivering Octavian's glorious, powerfully soaring outbursts without strain or compromise. One hears in the timbre that the voice is beginning to age, but the line remains firm and the voice in control. Though her German pronunciation is very good, one senses that the words are not being lived one by one in the moment - the whole phrase has the right emotional colour, but it doesn't sound like she has fluent German. The same was true of Lucy Crowe, whose pronunciation was also very good, but lacked that hard to define sense of true fluency and nuance. Perhaps this is expecting too much, but in Strauss of all composers, I miss that last degree of textual acuity because Strauss often composes word by word rather than by phrase, so any loss of specificity in the response to the text notices far more than many other operatic composers. I'm being insanely fussy perhaps and that this was even in question is partly an indication of the high standard of the whole performance.

Lucy Crowe was very nice as Sophie: a lovely shimmery vibrato, just right for her fach, and a very slight hoarseness in the sound that adds colour and bite. Her musicianship and vocal solidity in the lower registers means she can more than tackle an oft underestimated role. What is slightly uncomfortable is a pronounced wobble above the stave, the vibrato widening and relaxing at just the point when it should be most gleaming and vibrant. I don't know if this was a one off problem or a recurrent issue, but one hope it will be addressed soon, lest the voice decline before its time. The collection of tenors and baritones that made up the Marschallin's coachmen and then Faninal's single phrase in the last scene were true luxury. I have never heard these parts better sung, ever. Unfortunately I can't find my programme, and they're not on the Barbican website, so do comment below if you know who they were!

The LSO under Mark Elder played with great vigour, utilising a big boned, lustrous tone - appropriate for the Barbican's acoustics, but I can imagine that it might have covered the singers a little too often had I not been sitting so close to the stage. What was missing was that refined Viennese glow in the sound and lissome flexibility in the rhythm, but with playing as accurate, juicy and confident as this it's hard to complain. The final trio, which is somehow more special in live performance even than on record, was superbly delivered from all. From my seat, seeing and hearing every nuance from these singers, in the most glorious sections of maybe the most sumptuously beautiful opera ever composed, this was one of the most enjoyable concerts I've been to this season.

Friday 9 May 2014

Thebans World Premiere at ENO


How nice it is to have expectations confounded. I admit to having had mild reservations about Julian Anderson's Thebans before I even entered the theatre. Oedipus or Orpheus or Elektra are all very well as opera subjects in the neoclassicism of the 18th century or the intellectual milieu of early 20th century Central Europe, with Freudian thought ascendant and musical neoclassicism just around the corner. But an essentially straight, grand opera treatment of one of the central Greek myths, in 2014 seems, on the face of it, like a precious, out of touch undertaking, self consciously 'operatic' and purposefully distant from the zeitgeist, perhaps even reactionary. The actual myths remain fascinating to us, so it's not the content that is in question; what is difficult is the style. A big part of this problem stems from producing a libretto - what language and what dramatic devices will allow the ancient myth to live and resonate in our time and not feel like a museum piece before it's had its first lease of life.

While in this particular production perhaps not every one of these concerns is answered, for the most part I found this to be a very enjoyable evening: the music making is excellent, the production simple, tasteful and effective, and the score has many moments of extraordinary splendour and beauty. Julian Anderson is not one of the big 'names' in contemporary music, at least not in the way that say Adès, Benjamin or Turnage are, but on the evidence of this showing, his skill in operatic writing puts him above many of his more famous peers. The libretto by Frank McGuinness is lucid and perhaps stolid, which naturally affects the drama. McGuinness's characters constantly narrate their own histories, the action often having occurred off stage at an earlier date. Very Wagnerian then. The drama is primarily psychological in nature, though McGuinness's language is far less lyrical-poetic than Wagner's, avoiding direct allusions to emotion or too much sensual description, and one doesn't sense Wagner's attachment to massive metaphysical ideologies. It certainly has a character - it feels objective and slightly unadventurous, despite the essentially modern syntax and occasional contemporary phrases.

Anderson's music is hard to pigeonhole or describe. The harmonic language is fundamentally atonal and certainly not easy listening, but modal implications are constantly being felt, and he is capable of producing very evocative, highly differentiated, and strongly characterised textures that keep one rooted in a time, place and character. This is in no small part down to his orchestration, which is always expert, and sometimes breathtaking. In scene after scene Anderson gives us something extraordinary - sometimes easy to discern as in Tiresias' amazing basso profundo arioso accompanied by piccolo and staccato woodwinds, or the tremolo woodblocks, accompanied by whispered sighs from orchestral instruments and the chorus, underpinned by double bass groans, which creates the forest atmosphere of the opening of Act III. But at other times the aural mass is impossible to analyse in terms of instrumentation, and in fact the instruments seem to melt away - a humid nimbus of sound is what one experiences.

The music throughout is imbued with a pliant lyricism, and though we don't get traditional arias or melodies as such, it recognisably draws on a thorough knowledge of the vocal tradition. In fact one gets the feeling that Anderson's knowledge is close to encyclopaedic and the list of influences one feels is enormous and highly eclectic - Dutilleux, Carter, Ligeti, Takemitsu, Feldman, Benjamin, all surface, and the bewildering density, yet lack of murkiness of the orchestral palette shows he has learned much from all of these. It always appears transfigured seamlessly into his own peculiar brand of unshowy orchestral splendour. Perhaps a weakness is the lack of memorability of the motivic material, and focus on local shapes and effects rather than large range, but the result is satisfying and never bores.

Pierre Audi's production is not set in a specific time period, instead merging elements of ancient dress with modern dress. The main set items are large mesh cages which contain stones, which are cleverly used to represent a crumbling empire in Act I, brutal solidity in Act II and the natural world in Act III. In the first act, entitled "Past: The Fall of Oedipus", we see the state of Oedipus' kingdom, his people swathed in white robes that look almost like bandages. This act contains the main meat of the Oedipus story that we are most familiar with. The stark, blue tinged cross lights give a chilly, alienated feel to proceedings, but Audi doesn't quite manage to build a convincing shape in the drama, and there are lots of places where characters seem to be stumbling around aimlessly just to use all the space. It feels a little cluttered. Act II, entitled "Future: Antigone", depicts Oedipus' daughter Antigone's obsession with her brothers burial, and the final tragedy of her demise at the hands of Creon, who has seized power after Oedipus' downfall. Under this new regime, everyone wears neat black garb, and the architecture of the old regime is very effectively reused and reinterpreted under the new one: decaying pillars have become glittering walls of a fortress, lit from within, with a warm golden light bathing the stage, giving a noble, imperial feel to Creon's empire. The music is neat, clean and propulsive, revealing the brutal regularity of Creon's rule, though his vocal lines betray a much more emotionally fickle character. The appearance of Antigone brings a stark remembrance of the past, instantly recalled by the cold cross light of Act I. Act III, entitled "Present: The Death of Oedipus", fits chronologically in between the other two acts and provides context and elaboration for the events that precede and follow it. Again, the direction had many characters merely stumbling about the stage, though the the music in the latter half of the act sweeps all before it - first Polynices' arresting monologue, then the undefinable sense of 'endings', a magnificently beautiful passage in which Oedipus is reunited with Antigone, then upward gliding orchestral scales, swirling tendrils of sound, as Oedipus heads to the light of his final rest, and then a dramatic outburst from Antigone who cannot accept that she can't follow him. The opera ends with a startling single unaccompanied note from Antigone.

Edward Gardner's direction is deft, leading the orchestra through this formidable music, allowing the superb orchestrations to resonate and impact with full force. Of course one cannot comment on accuracy without anything to compare it to, but the playing is committed and beautiful, and the effect can be mesmerising.

The cast is mostly very good. Roland Wood was announced as having a severe throat infection, and apparently had not sung at all for two weeks, but he performed admirably, and cut a compelling character on stage. Susan Bickley was as dependably good as she always is, her steely mezzo well suited to Jocasta's music, with its luscious string clusters and then more angular declamatory portions. Peter Hoare's tense, wiry Creon is the best defined character on stage and his journey from smiling politician to authoritarian ruler is pleasing to watch. Matthew Best relies a little too much on his fabulous fortune teller diva costume as Tiresias, but the effect is so strong, and his music so well characterised that the character is still compelling. Julia Sporsén revealed an attractive voice in the role of Antigone, but sounds overparted until act III, though she was perhaps saving herself. Still, I have a feeling that the role requires a bigger voice as it stands. Christopher Ainslee's Theseus, Messenger and Haemon show up the only real point of weakness in Anderson's scoring - these counter tenor roles all have too much instrumentation underpinning them and Ainslee struggled to be heard - the case is different from the one with Antigone, because counter tenor voices are never really very large decibels wise. Smaller roles are well taken by young singers - Jonathan McGovern as Polynices makes the most of the beautiful solo passage mentioned above.

All in all a very exciting new opera, that I can't wait to see again. It feels like it could withstand very wide ranging interpretation. I would love to listen to a recording of it also, and hope against hope that some sort of memento might be preserved of this world premiere performance.

Tuesday 8 April 2014

Jonas Kaufmann Recital at ROH (and Christiane Karg at Wigmore Hall)


I didn't quite know what to expect coming to Jonas Kaufmann's and Helmut Deutsch's ROH Winterreise. Would the venue be suitable for such an intimate work? Would Kaufmann, magnificent artist though he is, be the right interpreter for this piece? Kaufmann and Deutsch both took a while to warm up I thought, the first few songs perfectly well performed, but not terribly personal. Kaufmann's voice was fairly muted throughout the evening, though there was a baritonal harshness in these early songs which gave way to ever more sensitive and delicate use of head voice as the recital continued. No.12, Einsamkeit, was painfully intimate and still, and signalled to me the beginnings of a special intensity which both artists dipped into regularly until the end of the recital. Plenty of brightness was offered by Deutsch's light touch at the piano, like Kaufmann rarely rising above a mezzo forte, making the most of the more hopeful songs. The opening of No.21, Das Wirtshaus, had a glowing, harmonium like sonority that charmed and moved. The final few songs had the audience rapt, and showed the strength of the cumulative effect that this performance achieved. Overall I can't describe this as a completely wonderful traversal of this masterpiece - I was sitting in the amphitheatre, and not quite enough line, colour and contrast was reaching us, with the result that things often verged on the bland. Certainly a large part of this was to do with the inappropriateness of the venue for the piece (I've often wondered why the superstar artists don't just do several dates at the Wigmore? Wishful thinking: maybe they prefer the enormous financial reward of the larger venues!) but I think there's a slight discomfort (stylistic as much as technical) with Kaufmann in all this quiet, head voice singing - when he engaged the baritonal heft for the loud parts, it seemed to come out of nowhere a bit and created a choppy effect, and lovely, cultivated and masterful though the vocal control is for lieder singing, it never seemed to flow with the same smoothness as does his operatic singing.

In some ways, heresy though it might be to say it, I have enjoyed Kaufmann's recorded work more so far than when I have seen him live - the dark power of the voice is far more impressive up close, and the microphone captures every nuance and sculpted phrase that this exceptionally intelligent artist lavishes his interpretations with. In the theatre I have sometimes found the vocal cover a little too safe sounding, and I think the voice is not actually quite big enough to be fully satisfying in the most heroic Verdi and Wagner roles that he sings - the dark colour and his superb technique mean that he gets away with it, the more so on record, where even his Siegfried sounds wonderful, but I always feel slightly underwhelmed live.

The coughing from the audience was absolutely ridiculous, even by London audience standards, frequent during the songs, but erupting in a cataclysmic barrage as soon as the last chords were struck in each song, often obscuring Deutsch's introduction in the next song. I can't imagine how distracting and disconcerting this must have been to the performers. I don't think people know what a stifled cough is. I don't know what the solution is. Do people need a demonstration like you get at the beginning of an aeroplane flight? I'm really not joking.

Earlier that day I attended a wonderful little recital by Christiane Karg with Malcolm Martineau. "Little" only in duration, this was an immense programme in terms of breadth, vocal resources and demands on both artists. We started with Schoeck, a single song called Nachruf, wonderful to hear this most underrated of all composers played with such style, and the Wolf selection from the Spanisches Liederbuch followed in the same vernal, fresh mode. Debussy's Cinq Poemes De Baudelaire were performed by Karg with an almost cabaret style daring and sexyness, real levity and sensuousness, the feeling of jazz not a million miles off. Schoenberg's 4 Lieder op.2 were another welcome addition in such a beautiful performance, wonderfully indulgent and wiltingly overwrought as this early set of songs are. The final Strauss numbers - Lieses Lied, Allerseelen, Befreit - were glistening jewels that crowned the recital - Karg seems destined to sing this music with her wonderful textual acuity and silvery sound allied to soaring vocal warmth and bloom when required. Very often there was a truly uncanny resemblance to Elizabeth Schwarzkopf in the timbre, that smiling headvoice shimmer that is so particular to Schwarzkopf. At 33, Karg is still right at the beginning of her career, and I think she could be one of the great lieder singers. Why is there always a but?! My only concern, and it's a big one because it marred my enjoyment of virtually every number before the Strauss songs, is that during quiet singing the voice does not sound fully supported (lovely though the delivery remains) and the switch to fully supported "whole body" singing is just so obvious - way more overtones are activated and it sounds like a superstar soubrette voice rather than simply an extremely talented soubrette voice. You can sort of hear it even on CD (an excellent Strauss recital is about to be released). This is exactly what Brigitte Fassbaender was very focussed on during her wonderful recent Wigmore Hall masterclasses, and in idle fantasy on the way to the Kaufmann recital I was thinking how great it would be for her to fix this final small thing with Karg, one great lieder singer to another. I hope Karg gets help with this from someone as if she does she will easily be one of my absolute favourite singers (though she hardly needs my approval!) Malcolm Martineau was quite brilliant at the piano throughout the recital - he seems to get this ultra late romantic music to a tee - articulating every note with exceptional clarity and beauty, but also giving it the space and sonority it needs to breathe. He was on very good form indeed and clearly enjoys performing with Karg very much.

Thursday 3 April 2014

Prince Igor at the Coliseum with Kolobov Novaya Opera


copyright Tristram Kenton

Borodin's Prince Igor is an absolute mishmash of a score, and even if you didn't know that it was completed by many others (as I didn't before listening to the first act), you can hear its stylistic incoherence in every bar. In this and many other ways, it presages many aspects of 20th century Modernism and is strongly representative of the gradual replacement of the Teutonic line with the Franco-Russian line as the centre of artform from the late 19th onwards. The piece is built in splashy blocks of contrasting colour, alternating folksy, rowdy, pentatonics with blurry, chromatically sliding orientalisms all sitting above a fundamentally very static harmonic base. Both feel "primitive" and wholly without the large scale tensions of Teutonic diatonic paragraphs which give German music from Bach to Bruckner such gigantic formal strength. It is left to rhythm to provide forward momentum, and in fact rhythm is given an importance and vitality that often makes it the most interesting aspect of the music. Stravinsky's Russian ballets are really not very far away, immeasurably greater though they are, and then at a greater distance Messiaen, Bartok, Les Six, Prokofiev, Schnittke.

I already know before reading other reviews that Yuri Alexandrov's production will be labelled as "traditional" and the like, although, as per usual, it is nothing of the sort. The word "traditional" is now loaded with ideology in the operatic community, so I guess it will suffice as an indication of what to expect. It strikes me that this production is probably self consciously ultra kitsch and "traditional" to appeal to a foreign idea of Russia as some sort of cultural backwater which the corrupting practises of Regie Theatre have not yet reached. The Novaya opera guys are not naive in this regard - just look at their roster of other shows and the directors who have worked there.*

Actually, what I liked most about this production was how the "traditional" approach highlighted the pre-modernist aspects of the piece. Vyacheslav Okunev's sets are fussy, cramped, sort of realistic, but are wonderfully garishly lit, and there are even nods to old style painted backdrops - wrinkled sheets, lit from the side, which can only have been done to exaggerate the oldy-worldy self conscious kitsch. Costumes are in a similar sort of style - what you'd imagine from a Zeffirelli production. The opera's subject matter almost couldn't be worse in the current political climate surrounding Russia and the Ukraine, but there's no political subtext explored in this direction, though it's impossible not to think about it whilst watching. Women are constantly being mistreated and carried off against their will - strong shades of David McVicar then, which on its own tells you it's not an old school production. The first half fails to stir as there is a weak attempt at some story telling: the music and libretto simply prevents this from happening, along with the meagre acting talents of all those on stage. The second half is much better, as the production lapses into pageantry and strangeness - every character simply standing centre stage and singing while some sort of choreographed motion goes on behind them. We get a series of contrasted numbers with very little forward dramatic thrust, but each stage picture is so pleasingly done, with its kitsch lighting, unsophisticated dancing, sequins, glitter, touching spectacle, and it follows the ultra static, anti-Teutonic musico-dramatic design so faithfully that I found it impossible to resist. The Polovskian dances, by far the most famous music in the piece, get a particularly wonderful treatment which almost defies description; I really liked the human horses and the girl dancing in a huge metal bowl. It all ends abruptly with a reconciliatory duet that comes from nowhere and then a final beautiful unaccompanied chorus which my neighbour said she had never heard in the score before. There's an amateurish air to all this lavishness, but then the music feels exactly the same aesthetically, so the production to me seems to alchemically capture something very important about the piece.

Singing is universally very solid and decent, without ever being very personal. Elena Popovskaya is very rocky as Yaroslavna in the first half, but then spins some absolutely gorgeous lines in the second half - almost didn't seem like the same singer (perhaps she wasn't?? see below**). Sergey Artamonov's Igor is orotund and impressive, as is Vladimir Kudashev as Konchak the Khan, both in a generically slavic sounding way. Agunda Kulaeva also stood out as a very deep sounding mezzo, seductively contraltoish in the low range, and her lover, Vladimir, was sung with a very firm and quite lovely lyric tenor by Aleksey Tatarintsev. The orchestra are quite average in Jan Latham-Koenig's hands, though the sheer noise and frenetic bluster of the score in various moments is enough to raise a smile, even if ridiculously loud timpani and parping brass decimate any sense of orchestral blend in the loud parts.

All in all a good evening, which improved as it went on and stopped trying to be a piece of serious theatre. There is a place for this sort of thing, and this is the opera for it.

*In my experience of talking to many, many opera goers, most people who insist on "traditional productions" which "match the composer's intentions" actually have very, very little historical knowledge of how the works were originally staged or what the composer actually wrote was their intention in writing a piece or the composer's attitudes to stagings, and also are not at all sensitive to genuine stylistic/historical accuracy - any combination of sequins, crinolines, embroidery, corsets, waistcoats, silks, gauze, stockings and robes seems to be fine so long as it's in a realistic looking set with candles.

**There was an odd moment in the second half when the curtain was brought down and then separated as if someone was going to make an announcement, but then nothing happened and the opera continued. It finished 20 minutes before the published time, and the ending seemed very sudden, so I wonder if something was simply cut out of the original plan due to one of the leads being unable to continue. Who knows when every performance of Prince Igor uses a new version! It didn't hugely matter.

Tuesday 1 April 2014

Rodelinda at ENO


I am so pleased to have caught the last night performance of this production - it was a truly wondrous experience on all levels, one of those cherished operatic evenings which make all the bad and merely decent evenings worthwhile.

My admiration of Handel has been hard fought for and it has required keeping an open mind over a number years to become attuned to the particular pleasures that his oeuvre affords. In my teens his music seemed pale and shallow next to Bach's, then when opera became the big focus for me, I found the slow dramatic pacing to be a huge impediment to enjoyment. After my narrow adolescent tastes for complexity and lushness were transcended, I discovered that simplicity is the key for this composer and though he can't surprise like Bach, he charms and moves in different ways. He is one of the supreme melodists, always finding a freshness within his superficially predictable means; the action tends to be very narrowly focused on extraordinarily intense psychology and human emotion; his ear for sonority is immaculate - I now understand why Elgar said he was the greatest orchestrator, even if it seems like hyperbole to make a point. Along with Alcina and Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda represents for me the high water mark of Handel's middle period. The principle reason for this is the high quality of the music, but the stories in these three operas seem to offer more to explore than much standard baroque operatic fare.

Richard Jones' production is one of the best I have ever seen of a baroque opera. He and designer Jeremy Herbert update it to be a late 20th century mafia story, but far from being the normal yawnful excuse for some acme grimyness and mafia cliches, here Jones uses it to carefully delineate each character, and add specificity and clarity to all the character relationships. Jones' trademark sense of humour is present but what is so refreshing is that the humour is internal to the story and never at the expense of the piece. Far too often in my opinion are baroque operas presented with a knowing irony i.e. where the silliness of the plot is acknowledged in some way by the characters on stage. I find that approach lazy and boring, cheap laughs though it raises, so Jones' production comes as a wondrously refreshing model of how this pitfall can be avoided without resorting to humourless, stolid literalism, which often strays dangerously close to (and is on occasion even used as an excuse for) the realm of the park and bark where laziness reaches it's exultant, perfected form. Jones' humour is dark, incisive, but also adds colour and allows the opera's moments of searing poignance to soar even higher.

Rodelinda (when given in full) is a series of 30ish solo arias, a duet, a trio and a final short chorus for the principles. This musico-dramatic design, when combined with the ABA form of the da capo aria and it's repetitious use of text, make forward dramatic momentum a real challenge for the singer and director to achieve, not just within each number, but on the longer range too. It's not that Handel's operas are inherently undramatic, merely that they need a directorial approach which suits them and we are still at an early period of their modern rehabilitation to the stage: a new tradition needs to be forged and built upon. One of the greatest felicities of the design in this production is the tripartite set which allows us to to track the stories of more than one character at a time by letting us see what is going on in adjacent rooms. The rooms are brilliantly linked together not just physically by doors, but visually also by surveillance cameras and screens allowing characters to react in private to the goings on of another room, and for the watched to send messages to their observers. This allows for greater psychological complexity to evolve, and also ensures that nothing remains too static.

Hugely aided by Herbert's excellent set design, Jones' approach to staging each aria is consistently inventive and engaging because the antics of the characters come clearly out of plot and situation, and because each character is obviously trying to do something in each aria, rather than just telling you about their emotions, a sense of forward momentum is maintained. What I admired particularly is Jones' sensitivity to the score, and how the staging is obviously informed by the music. One part that sticks in my mind is the staging of the Act II duet, one of the most beautiful Handel ever wrote but difficult to handle dramatically because of the unlikeliness of the villain allowing the two lovers a final union with no questions asked. Jones solves this conundrum in an ingenious way - whenever Rodelinda and Bertarido sing their twisting vocal lines the rest of the characters freeze, and then as soon as we get to a purely instrumental section, the other characters spring into action, divorcing the two lovers into two separate rooms. The effect is that we have our cake and eat it a) the searing beauty of the duet gets the stillness it needs to bloom, taking on an almost spiritual intensity as the characters are pulled apart; b) the libretto is followed as the lovers are united, but the drama is allowed to continue as are then "immediately" torn apart - the slow motion allows us both. Right at the end we get a coup de theatre - the actual rooms of the building are pulled apart, leaving Grimoaldo, the orchestrator of this event, unexpectedly alone and alienated in the cavernous depths of the rest of the set, punished by his own punishment. It doesn't come across as fussy or gimmicky directing because it's not extraneous to the music, and in fact enhances our experience of the piece as drama.

At other times, a wholly static staging is used to let the music speak - During Bertarido's Act II aria, yearning, pastoral and dreamy as it is, he sits slumped at a bar for the entire duration, the only change being the slowly shifting lights of the bar which cycle through a beautiful spectrum of colours. The feeling of alienation in the metropolitan, social setting, the yearning for nature in all this beautiful artifice, the feeling of dream like suspension that the shifting lambency of the lighting provide, all support the music beautifully. Mimi Jordan Sherin's lighting design throughout is in fact superb, really adding to the story telling in a noticeable way without being intrusive - lighting is such a pleasure when it is done this well.

Video is used sparingly, but intelligently - Jeremy Herbert and Steven Williams connect it directly with the stage action, props and set, and so doesn't seem "grafted on" as it often does in other productions. In the opening scene, the Grimoaldo is approving designs for a trophy like object that we don't yet know the purpose of yet. Then, during a film transition we see that it is actually a model for the enormous memorial monument that he has erected for his predecessor - a lovely twist that speaks volumes of the character and situation. Then later, another video sequence depicts the statue's destruction, again something that couldn't be satisfactorily shown on stage (cf. the recent Met Götterdämmerung) and then we see the enormous pieces of wreckage immediately afterwards. It's fun, dramatically effective, and non invasive or distracting from the story telling.

The score is judiciously cut, and though the high quality of this score means that beautiful music is certainly being lost, the piece is such a feast that one doesn't feel short changed, and indeed one is somewhat thankful that one is not being forced into gluttony, which can lead to monotony. I must also just mention the wonderful idea of having Flavio not as a helpless, innocent child, but instead as a brooding teenager, a gangster already in training. Matt Casey does a great job in this silent role, supporting Rodelinda in her threats, half dancing, half clowning - excellent directing and acting choices here.

Rebecca Evans revealed a truly gorgeous full lyric instrument as Rodelinda, almost ideal for the role in terms of timbre, weight and flexibility. Her acting became more committed and precise as the evening progressed, and her commitment to colour and expression in her arias was very admirable when so many singers aim for a bland, "white" sound in Handel. The main drawback was the lack of a sustained legato line - a maximum of three notes at a time were connected which lead to a mosaic like style of phrasing, where a more expansive line would have been welcome. However, in light of the other aspects of her performance and the beauty of the voice, much could be forgiven. Iestyn Davies was equally committed and beautiful of tone as Evans, and his slow arias were particular highlights. I'm not a fan of the way that every few notes will arbitrarily be a totally straight tone between five other beautifully vibratoed (new word?!) syllables, but nevertheless he continues to be one of the finest counter tenors around. I haven't ever written on this blog about my reservations regarding the inherent limitations of the counter tenor voice, and their extremely anachronistic use in baroque opera, but that's another blog post.

The last time I saw Susan Bickley it was as a superlative Ortrud in WNO's wonderful recent Lohengrin. That she is capable within the same year of singing Handel to such a high level speaks to her musicianship and great technique. As Eduige her coloratura is excellent, the vibrato controlled, so if it isn't the most plush sound, she makes up for it in other ways. John Mark Ainsley presents a similar case - the voice is not always the most beautiful any more, but he is a stylish, sensitive interpreter in a huge range of repertoire, who easily makes the villain Grimoaldo into a fully rounded, sympathetic figure. Baritone Richard Burkhard and counter tenor Christopher Ainslie round a truly excellent cast.

Christian Curnyn manages to transform the ENO orchestra into an extremely effective baroque band, and seems to have become the ENO's in house conductor for this repertoire. Tempos are often slightly on the fast side, though they remain unhurried, and his ear for timbre and balance is expert. Some of the playing was quite spectacular such as the blurred, careening chromatics in the accompaniment of Bertarido's furious Act 3 aria. Let us hope that this production is revived as swiftly as possible. It's a co-production with the Bolshoi, but I sincerely hope that other European companies will take it on as well.

Photos (c) Clive Barda/ENO

Monday 17 March 2014

Die Frau Ohne Schatten at the ROH


17/03/14 - some corrections and comments have been made for the second night performance, altogether a better experience.

Die Frau Ohne Schatten is one of those cultish operas that is a bit of an event when it is staged, because it's not quite standard repertoire, has the moniker of "Strauss's most ambitious opera", and is difficult to work out musically and philosophically, though many make great claims for it. Few would yield to me in my love of Strauss, but that shadowy cadre of Straussians for whom bigger is better, who claim that Die Frau Ohne Schatten is "Strauss's greatest opera", are in my opinion very mistaken. Robin Holloway has written brilliantly about this fascinating opera and calls this attitude "taking the will for the deed" i.e. accepting the lofty intentions of the creators as the measure of the worth of a work, rather than evaluating the actual artwork that lies in front of our senses and critical faculties. If Der Rosenkavalier is Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Figaro, a bittersweet comedy that inhabits a bustling, full, social world, Die Frau Ohne Schatten was intended as their Magic Flute - a fairy tale parable with a transcendent message. It is set in a mystical world with two couples - one "high", one "low", there are mysterious gods, trials, and an improving moral. But the purity and charm of Die Zauberflote has been inflated by Wagner (without capturing his breadth and depth), and Hofmannsthal has inadvertently imitated all the worst parts of Die Zauberflote without also mirroring its felicities - the illogical plot that falls to pieces in the second half, the blandly unfinished characters (apart from Papageno), the removal of personal agency by the much put upon "higher powers" that undermine the characters' choices. On the other hand, Die Frau Ohne Schatten is a sort of travesty (in the literary sense) of a Wagner opera. Superficially there are lots of similar elements - slow psychological action, leitmotifs, enormous voices, bigger orchestra, overtly philosophical in feel. But unlike Wagner there's no tension, no drama - the symbolism is empty and (ironically) unpregnant, the libretto fails to make a drama of Hofmannsthal's subject matter, the scenario self consciously epic but lacking in specificity and therefore bland and only psuedo profound.

Many an opera has survived a questionable libretto, but Strauss struggled to respond to the text, and the result, as always with Strauss when he isn't fully engaged, resorts to note spinning, professional grade glitter and splurge, music written by the yard with ceaseless energy, expertise, mastery even, but lacking true inspiration. During its composition he wrote as much to Hofmannsthal: "I'm toiling really hard, sifting and sifting - my heart's only half in it, and once the head has to do the major part of the work you get the breath of academic chill which no bellows can ever kindle into a real fire." At the same time Strauss, having just produced four operatic masterpieces (flawed or otherwise), was at the height of his stupendous technical powers and so there are of course passages of wondrous beauty and brilliance. The opening half hour contains the opera's best music by some distance and is consistently inspired. The end of Act I is also extremely beautiful and almost convinces that it is of commensurate quality. The opening imprisonment scene of Act III is also quite extraordinary and then moments in the remainder of that act make one marvel. But the end is banal, inflated and leaden, sugar cream and glitter masquerading as fulfilment and sublimity. Again Holloway hits the nail on the head when he says "The use of extreme intervals, in Act III especially, can epitomise the discrepancy between will and deed. They are literally attempts to soar out of the habitual, but they don't sear and hurt like comparable places in Bruckner 9 , Kundry's music or Mahler 10 (to say nothing of early Schoenberg) because the harmony is basically bland." This encapsulates the problem for me - the blandness of the harmony means the work lacks form, shape, momentum and contrast and no extremities of colour, pitch, volume, however vehement, can rescue it.

Claus Guth struggles to make any sort of statement with the piece, obfuscating the already limping dramatic frame with a jejune hospital sequence opening, and, incredibly, a final scene where the Empress wakes up and "it was all a dream". The Empress writhes with night terrors in the opening scene and seems to be in extreme psychological anguish, though we're not sure why. Then her nurse cooks up this fantastical story for her (in the dream? as a bed time story? as a therapist?), and continues to pull all the strings throughout the opera in the guise of a cartoonily gothic, rocky horror demon. There's lots of playing with doubles and mirror images as the Empress empathises with the Dyer's Wife (or rather the Dyer's wife is a projection of her own insecurities), after the bed ridden descent to the earth, which confirms that the opera in this production is in fact all a delusion of the Empress. Guth runs out of interpretive ideas and the concept becomes more tenuous and ever less probing as the story churns on into Act II, several decisive plot points lacking any obvious motivation or on stage stimulus (e.g. the Emperor deciding he has to kill his wife, the total changes of character in the Dyer's wife, the reason for the nurse's punishment). This can be chalked up to "dream logic" but it feels lazy and doesn't make for satisfying viewing since we don't know what The Empress is so cut up about in Act I and what all these Freudian images are a reflection of in the waking world. Add to this copious sexual imagery (pleasure/pain at being penetration by a husband's spear, sperm like "fishes" as the voices of the unborn children) and an embarrassingly literal physical rendering of the wounded gazelles that we are told about in Act I who return wherever there is an orchestral interlude, and we get a hodge-podge of sophomoric story telling that fails to congeal into a convincing whole for even a moment. The set designs by Christian Schmidt are unsuggestive and characterless - a curving wooden wall with a rotating panel at the back - which neither conjure the hospital "real world" or the dreamy fantasy world with any force or specificity.

In a sense it seems like the two central soprano roles have been cast the wrong way round. Elena Pankratova's smooth, silvery sound seems much more apt for the supernatural, insubstantial Empress, whose vocal writing also requires more flexibility. Emily Magee's earthy, heavy, solid voice seems more apt for the earthbound Dyer's wife, though the lack of a working chest register is less of a handicap in the Empress, the role she was hired for. Both Pankratova and Magee seemed a little out of sorts in Act I, though they both warmed up considerably for the more strenuous later acts. Pankratova's voice is very pleasing: strong in all registers, and with good German diction, famously difficult for Russians. [On the second night she was even better, dispatching some truly magnificent singing in the ridiculously demanding second act - soaring lines of extraordinary power without losing the fundamental silkyness. A very different singer from Goerke, but in her own way just as good, and she is surely one of the very best singing today in her vocal category. Special to witness and I'd love to see her in another Strauss or Wagner role.] Magee was less convincing I thought as the vocal production sounds very effortful with the line constantly broken to change register, or reach a high note, which happens constantly in this high lying role, though she got a very large ovation, so many obviously disagree with my assessment. Acting wise she was hammy and there was very rarely a feeling of true connection with the character. The one exception was the moment in Act I when she wasn't singing and was sitting next to the Dyer's wife. The production can't have helped any of them to create a sense of connection with their characters though as all performances felt rather on the surface acting wise.

Michaela Schuster has a very exciting, juicy mezzo, very resonant and powerful through her whole range, and does a good job of the Amme's extremely angular vocal lines. The voice slipped off the breath quite regularly though during quiet singing which lead to some lumpy phrases, and though she is a German native I understood only four words she sang in the entire evening. Quite strange, as this was vocally the total opposite of her recent ROH Klytemnestra. A compelling singer though. Johann Botha does his normal thing: mullet, goatee, park and bark come fitted as standard, but he is one of the very few heldentenors who can sustain the very high "Lohengrin" tessitura of the big Strauss roles. I don't think it's a particularly beautiful voice, and there's not much variation in timbre or care for text, but the stainless steel edge seems to expand to unlimited volume and with endless stamina - hard to complain too much in this role. Johan Reuter did very well as Barak, the voice large and the delivery committed, and on the second night he dispatched his lines with naturalness and ease. David Butt Philip deserves a special mention for his very good singing in the small role of the Apparition of Youth - he's a Jette Parker Young Artists that seems to be well above the normal standard.

Semyon Bychkov conducts the ROH orchestra with assurance through this gargantuan maze of a score. He still can't sell the pages and pages of gilded slag, but he stirs up a tremendous din when required and it flows along well enough. I'm not quite as sold on his Strauss conducting as many seem to be - I find that the line is often lost in the stolid harmonic firmness, and though the sound is very ripe, it rarely has that inner warmth and luminescence that the very greatest Strauss conducting achieves. He's obviously still very good! On the first night the ROH orchestra were not quite on best form in this tremendously demanding music, with quite a few moments of coarse musicianship in the solo playing - this is still Vienniese music and it needs that seamless elegance and refined beauty in the quieter moments. [On the second night the finale was given a much better shape and all five central singers seemed much more secure. A better all round performance]

All in all, despite many enjoyable moments of music making and some very exciting singing, this was a bit of a disappointing evening that failed to make light of this tricky work.

Sunday 9 March 2014

Review Catch up

ROH Carmen
ROH Don Giovanni
ROH Manon
ETO Paul Bunyan
ETO King Priam

I have been terrifyingly busy this past month, and this, combined with problems with my Google accounts in actually being able to post anything on the blog, has meant this blog has received a certain neglect of late. It's too late to post full reviews here, but here are a few reflections:

The new ROH Don Giovanni by Kasper Holten was certainly a better effort than his Eugene Onegin last season. The most superficially striking thing about it was the full stage projection, continually updating to project onto the moving, folding 3D set. I'm not sure how many will have realised quite what a technical feat this was. On the other hand, I got tired of the gimmick pretty quickly, and was irritated by the flickering edges caused by the combination of steep angles and pixels as the house turned. The non-descript, classless rotating house brings to mind the current Glyndebourne production and says as little. A common comment on Don Giovanni is that he is already on the decline and beset by problems at the beginning of the opera - we never actually see him wholly successfully seduce a woman as is boasted in Leporello's catalogue aria. Holten goes some way to changing this picture by making the women much more responsible for their liaisons with the Don. Just after "Orsai chi l'onore" for instance, during Ottavio's aria, Anna actually goes off to have sex with the Don, just hours after he has killed her father. A bit hard to credit, but we get the message - it takes two to tango. Holten also sees the Don's downfall as a descent into madness rather than a descent into hell. What causes this is guilt and the realisation that he lacks true love and intimacy: first he hovers around, dejected and forlorn during the three women's Act II arias, then then he is haunted by the ghost of the man he has accidentally killed. The finale is a bleak mad scene where everything drifts into nothingness, including the reactions of the other characters (which are cut). Overall it's not bad, and even after the gimmickry, it will do as a staple repertoire show. Holten never goes against the libretto, but his directorial choices always feel reasonable and "interesting", rather than engaging, moving or convincing. The cast were all very decent though for me lacked character.

The ETO's potentially exciting Spring season turned out to be disappointing for me. Paul Bunyan was a piece I'd never seen in the theatre, and Britten admirer though I am, I found it very hard going. What on earth were Britten and Auden thinking when they cooked it up? The heartless phoneyness of the cod-folk style reeks in every bar of text and music. The lack of dramatic line through what feels like an interminable duration makes it even harder to like. Not a piece I'd rush to hear or see again, aside from perhaps two pretty numbers. This production tried its best, but I was bored.

Also with the ETO, Tippett's King Priam. I thought I had heard this piece before and liked it but I must have had it confused with another of Tippett's operas - the music is uningratiating and oddly lacking in character and substance - quite unlike the ripeness of the early works, or mysterious twinkling oddness of the late ones. Anna Fleischle unhappily sci-fi inspired designs lack style and the stage space is extremely cramped. Acting also is as wooden as a bad sci-fi series, and none of the singing is quite beautiful enough to bring warmth to the stony hardness of the vocal writing. The orchestral pallette seems cramped and crude, but maybe these harsh timbres just need a larger space to resonate in? The libretto is full of platitudes and leaden, sullen characters, and by the time the chorus started running on stage for the battle singing "War! War! War!" whilst lamely swaying backwards and forwards with deer antlers, I was ready to give up.

Longer ago I saw the Zambello Carmen twice - once with Anita Rachvelishvili and Roberto Alagna (16/12/13) and once with Christine Rice and Yonghoon Lee (04/01/14). Zambello's production is surely due a renewal, and my guess is that Kasper Holten will have a shot at it, just as he has replaced her perennially unpopular Don Giovanni. Zambello is a director whose continued hiring at major opera houses is a mystery to me, and though her Carmen is nowhere near as bad as her Don Giovanni, it still doesn't offer many insights and is quite limited in how it treats the central characters. At least there's nothing in the characterisation that doesn't make sense: Carmen acts sexy and dominates the stage, Jose is suitably tortured and angry, Michaela is her usual wet self. But she never poses enough of a challenge to Carmen's carnality and sensuousness, and the moral dilemma of the drama seems token and by rote. The two casts proved interesting to compare. Rachvelishvili was a vocally very great Carmen I thought - power, accuracy, colour, sensuality, with a dark rawness in the sound, powerful chest notes, and a thrusting top. Alagna was vocally decent as Don Jose, but totally self involved acting wise, not connecting once with his stage partners. Vito Priante was vocally diminutive as the Torreador and simply miscast. Rice has a more polished sounding instrument that Rachvelishvili, and it's good to hear her again after a worrying and extended bought of illness. Another vocally very satisfying portrayal, though perhaps a little refined for my tastes - I'm a Callas admirer rather than a Price admirer in this role, to give two polar opposites. Tastes will differ. Lee can deliver terrifying decibels as Jose, and is not the most subtle singer, though he sang all the notes and was more interesting to watch dramatically than Alagna.

I saw the ROH Manon again with Ailyn Perez this time (click here for original review with Jaho). Perez proved to have a more pliant voice than Jaho, and she is more natural on stage, but the middle voice is lacking in resonance, and the lower voice a sliver, confirming what my thoughts after her Glyndebourne Falstaff last season (she is however much more suited to Manon than Alice Ford). Her cutesy smileyness, and dazzling good looks remind me of Danielle De Niese, but she is less magnetic on stage and the voice doesn't project as well in the theatre. Matthew Polenzani was even better than he was on opening night - a very beautiful performance of Des Grieux.

Hmm, a lot of negativity here. The main beauty of the last few weeks was the ENO Rigoletto that I just managed to post the review of. I feel like I've seen other things that I've simply forgotten to mention. Hmm. Not opera, but don't bother with the Sam Mendes' moribund King Lear at the NT with a very disappointing Simon Russell Beale in the title part, and the Duchess of Malfi at the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe is also worth missing (if it's still on), though I am excited to see how the space takes to an opera as it's a charmingly tiny theatre - Kasper Holten's production of L'Ormindo will be starting there very soon. Oh, and go and see the Lego Movie.

Saturday 8 March 2014

Rigoletto at ENO


Rigoletto is an opera I have seen many times before and have never previously loved, but after having seen this, I now fully understand the great appeal the music has in a great performance, and why it is such a staple repertoire piece.

Christopher Alden's production is pretty abstract, all taking place in a 19th century gentleman's club, the different locations overlapping, with characters in the same stage space not always in the same plane of the story. So the court becomes the same as Rigoletto's house and Gilda's imprisonment is spiritual. Like his production of Die Fledermaus from earlier this season, Alden's production is a mixed bag, but it has enough character and things to think about to make it more than worthwhile. The plot of Rigoletto is probably the paradigmatic 'silly opera plot', that stick that is used by the unsympathetic and insecure to beat the genre into a state of ridicule. Although this production probably assumes a reasonable familiarity with the story as normally presented, Alden tries to present it as an abstracted canvas in which we are encouraged to focus on the character relationships, rather than the the absurd plot elements which frame them. This approach when combined with the single set leads to a certain feeling of staticism, but when the music making is as fabulous as it is here, it works very well because we're allowed to focus on the ('right brain') emotional veracity of each moment rather than its logical absurdity (which the 'left brain' objects to. Drama is made of logical and emotional elements, and, for me at least, weakness in either leads to a difficulty in engaging with a piece of theatre). What I found most moving and insightful about Alden's presentation of the opera was in Rigoletto's relationship with Gilda - although it is obvious that he loves her beyond anything else, when actually faced with her in person he is too physically rough, too controlling, and finds it hard to communicate properly with her. In the end of course he ends up destroying her, which is his tragedy.

Quinn Kelsey's Rigoletto is simply stupendous. The endless wail of opera mavens that there are no great Verdi baritones any more has finally been answered. The two most famous baritones currently singing these roles on an international level are Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Simon Keenleyside, and though both have the control and command of the high tessitura that is required they also possess instruments that are essentially lyric in quality and so are in my experience rarely fully satisfying in this heavy repertoire. Kelsey similarly finds a superlative ease in the upper register and a wide palette of vocal colours, but his voice has a blade in it so he never resorts to bellowing, and the core of his sound is large, warm and burnished. On top of this, and perhaps most crucially, his singing is never just a exercise in bel canto - he actually manages to create a character in the sound. I can't praise him highly enough - let's hope we get him back soon for another Verdi baritone role.

Anna Christy's Gilda is very fine. She has an excellent technique and musicianship and in the ensembles she is wonderful. The fundamental timbre is not the most beautiful, and a certain hardness in the vibrato affects the middle voice, but the chest notes are there, and she sings the role as well as any I have heard live in the theatre. Barry Banks' duke is excellent in terms of his legato, and again his technique means that one is never nervous that he will come to any grief at any point. Acting wise he is a little weaker than his colleagues and occasionally a bit hard to credit as the lusty duke - he seems a bit cuddly and nice for that.

Under Graeme Jenkins the ENO orchestra play better than I have ever heard them. This was one of those performances that reminds you quite how transformative great conducting can be to an orchestra, and on the flip side, how few conductors there are at any moment that are capable of this. I don't think I've even heard better Verdi live in performance. Jenkins has a wonderful instinct for texture and colour, and drew out an atmosphere that I just didn't imagine existed inside this score. The sudden extreme shifts of mood in the piece told emotionally and dramatically, totally avoiding empty hysterics or shock tactics. The orchestra played as one organism, though on this first night there were a few moments in faster passages where pit and stage came slightly adrift, the only criticism I could make of this conducting. Most wonderful though was Jenkins' immaculate sense of line, the thing that really unifies an orchestra and allows melody driven music to attain real structure and momentum. Each number drifted along with dreamy ease, each phrase building on the arc of the previous one. So rare to hear, and such an immense pleasure when it is as spectacularly achieved as here.

Photos (c) ENO/Alastair Muir

Friday 31 January 2014

Peter Grimes at ENO


An odd production this. It isn't boring, but it flattens Britten's drama into a piece of caricature and grotesque theatre. Paul Steinberg's sets are semi abstracted with their cubist angles and lack of detail, but are traditional in their pictorial rather than symbolic intention. Director David Alden confusingly pitches this against psychologically abstracted physical direction. By "psychologically abstract" I mean that the physical characterisation and movement of the chorus and principals can't be consistently attributed to psychologically motivated people - instead we see the "sorts of things" these people might do, often in alienated, abstracted ways. Thus there's mass choreography ("old Joe has gone fishing" is a dance sequence), slow motion walking, stormy arm swaying and silly walks. The Borough doesn't seem like it is comprised of individuals, but instead is an abstract "wave" of hatred and mistrust. The social situations aren't intended to be literal depictions of events which can be confusing, and the lack of clarity is compounded in Act I by the lack of certainty about where the sea actually is. Eventually we work out that the crowd's gormless stares at the audience are meant to be seaward glances. The "characters" that the principals play (except for Peter and Ellen), fit in with this directorial style, but feel reductive and one dimensional to me, and the less scary for it. Auntie is the most interesting perhaps with her masculine pinstriped suits, cropped hair and cabaret manner, and the absurdist action in her brothel at the beginning of Act III comes as a surprise. Her 'nieces', often portrayed as loose women, are here cartoonish twin school girls, certainly mentally ill, who are fondled by the apothecary to no one's particular concern. A grim picture of the sexualisation of girls that the Daily Mail reading borough don't mind (and further, don't even see), whilst simultaneously screaming about the rumours of boys being abused.

Ellen is not the brave, healing, mother figure that we have come to expect, nor is she Grimes's bridge to society. In fact she's almost the most solipsistic of the lot, responding fully only to invisible internal stimulus, which makes her repeated lapses into hopeless inaction seem nihilistic and selfish. In Act II she seems unperturbed by (the child) John's very obvious extreme psychological anguish. She is very moving as she enjoys the sunlight in the harbour, but then is coldly distant when she points out John's ripped shirt, which elicits from him a disturbingly protracted bout of demented scrabbling at his own neck and back. When she sees the bruise, instead of comfort she offers only a chilly lesson in the painful ways of the world. When Grimes appears she seems hopeful though soon lapses into despair, not unreasonably of course, but at an arbitrary moment, which again makes it about her. In Act III, her embroidery aria is delivered looking directly into the audience, another opportunity to drift into her own isolated thoughts. Balstrode attempts to make contact here, but he is well and truly ignored. Again, the apparently arbitrary moment of depressive doubt, once again in response to internal stimulus rather than an outside event, makes her quite unsympathetic. It's a take on the character that I haven't seen before, reinterpreting the dreamy warmth and nobility of Ellen's music as an alienated and egoistic escape from life. It didn't do it for me, because I like watching relationships on stage rather than alienated drifting around, and Ellen is sort of the linchpin of the piece in terms of the relationships contained in it, but it's an interesting critique of a character commonly seen as "good".

Grimes's misanthropy seems reasonably argued and comes from a place of surprisingly acute social sensitivity in the Prologue - he wants to silence rumours with a proper trial, because otherwise the fearsome Borough will not only continue to tell the stories, but elaborate on them, and the rumours will linger. His subsequent plans to escape his situation become ever more erratic and fantastical as he is increasingly ostracised from society. This production's picture of Grimes is closer to a traditional view of the character than is Ellen's, but the lack of social reality to his situation makes him a less interesting and complex figure than he usually is. Stuart Skelton is very impressive vocally in the role. His general bruskness fits the character well, but the spellbinding pianissimo that he started his great visionary aria "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades", held the otherwise noisy audience absolutely rapt for its entire duration. This happened again in the extraordinary mad scene, where Grimes's mind  thoughts flits and plays over the music of the entire opera, though now made uncanny by the lack of harmonic context. Occasionally, slight instability in the vibrato produced a few tense vocal moments, but perhaps this was first night nerves. Acting wise he did fine, but the direction provided scant opportunity for building a dramatic arc with his colleagues.

Elsa van den Heever's Ellen was unusual dramatically in the ways already mentioned, but vocally she provided a convincing portrait. Here voice in the upper register is shiningly full and very beautiful, but falls away in vibrancy of tone in the lower half of the voice. Rebecca de Pont Davies's rich voiced Auntie gets ever better as the evening goes on, and when she is joined by Heever, Mary Bevan, and Rhian Lois for the quartet "From the gutter" we get one of the highlights of the evening. Matthew Best's Mr. Swallow is vocally imposing of tone and character, though I couldn't fathom why his character had a lisp. Felicity Palmer is a delight as the steely voiced Mrs. Sedley, reacting with believable irritation at Ned Keene's piss staking sexual advances. Leigh Melrose and Timothy Robinson provide worst of the "character acting" as Ned and the reverend Horace Adams respectively, though I don't blame them for this, and both are vocally right for their parts. Iain Paterson's finely sung Balstrode rounds a vocally accomplished cast.

Edward Gardner draws some lovely playing from the ENO orchestra, and the score's softer beauties are his forte. He doesn't manage to inspire the energy and aggression of the faster, louder sections nearly so convincingly, the act II interlude for instance seeming wan and undernourished. There's a spot of wonderfully beautiful viola playing in Act II from the section principal, Amelie Roussel. The ENO chorus are on thrilling form.

The central theme of Peter Grimes, that of society against the individual, is terrifyingly presented by Britten because the victory of the Borough is so complete. The social glue, the thing that pulls this society of preening misfits together, is not a genuine belief in conservative values, but rather the hatred of and then destruction of a vulnerable and isolated individual. This is chilling. Grimes is a threat not because he is odd or violent (in actual fact all of the members of the society that we witness are extremely odd - threateningly eccentric, immoral, hypocritical, prurient, or drug addled, and we can only surmise that each of the members of the chorus are the same), but because he is unconcerned with and possibly simply unable to "keep up appearances". Something about him makes it impossible for people to feel neutral towards him. In some ways we know, by the rules of tragedy, that Grimes is doomed from the beginning. But Ellen's resistance, whether powerfully, or (as here) weakly presented, is also crushed, and her future seems pretty bleak. Is she next for this treatment from the Borough? One feels that this society will continue to prey on its weakest members until it has destroyed itself. An apocalyptic vision.

Photos (c) ENO/Tristran Kenton

Thursday 16 January 2014

Manon at ROH


Few operas are so obviously relevant to our own times than Massenet's Manon. The story is not dissimilar from Mark-Anthony Turnage's recent Anna Nicole which tackles the same spiritual/psychological themes but fails to address them with any depth or warmth. Massenet is not a composer we turn to to plumb the depths and scale the heights of the human condition, but he was the ideal composer to tackle a story centred on greed, fame for fame's sake, and the power of sensuality, lust and sexuality over morality and religion.* The other two 19th century "bad women" blockbusters, Carmen and La Traviata, have similar plot elements, though the moral message and approach of each is very different (and audiences of the time would have reacted very differently to the various characters).

I have never been comfortable with the idea that Manon is a simple ingénue - the complexity and unremitting sensuality of her music just doesn't support this for me. Massenet builds his acts to reflect his leading lady. The first act is almost irritatingly light (certainly too long), but Manon seems to me to have more self knowledge than she is usually given credit for - after all, in her own words she's being sent to the convent by her family because she is "too fond of pleasure"! The second act is musically richer, more beautiful and morally interesting, the third goes further still in all these regards. Only Massenet could have a scene in a church where the society ladies are attending services because of their arousal over the attractive young priest, without judgement or bitterness, whatever the wry moralising of the libretto was meant to be. Massenet empathises and just shows us with a smile that these things happen in the world. In the event, the image approaches the Proustian.

Act V can feel like it is the ending of another opera. During the first four acts good deeds and good people have been universally punished, and bad deeds and bad people have been rewarded, and there's been no hint of remorse, guilt, or pity. Suddenly, in Act V Manon is in her death throws, which feels pat and like it's merely a nod to weepy 19th century operatic convention and bourgeois morality, the latter of which has been so gloriously ignored (indeed inverted) up until this point in the opera. Everything we have just witnessed is guiltily rescinded, and then everything is instantly forgiven and forgotten. I find it unsatisfying and unbelievable in the context of the world that Massenet has created, and ultimately a cop out.

Laurent Pelly's production has plenty of interesting ideas, and is not awful, but is not well designed and so is not amongst his better shows. Chantal Thomas' set designs are abstracted but clearly reflective of fin de siecle Paris. The small Belle Époque details (e.g. strings of spherical lanterns) can't disguise the acres of gray concrete, crude railings, and ugly buildings, and Joel Adam's unromantic lighting adds to the cold sterility of Manon's drab world. Everything is a bit off kilter - pillars lean, floors are haphazardly ramped, all presumably to reflect a world gone awry. It could surely be less clumsily achieved. (And where did the electric lights and Manon's modern ball gown come from in Act IV?). The lush (one time epically horrible) costume designs are Pelly's own, which feed the eye and raise further questions about the role of image and image cultivation in women of the 19th century. He can't disguise the languors of Act I and II: the comedy scenes feel very long, and there's far too much business regarding running up stairs only to hesitate, descend, then decide to run up again, but then hesitate, etc. etc. etc. Women are endlessly running across the stage shrieking and giggling without obvious motive. Various Pelly clichés arise - the choreographed crowd scenes with freeze frames and audience facing narrations feel tired and lazy here. An example of the awkwardness of certain staging decisions: During the famous Gavotte of Act III many of crowd movements are aesthetically motivated whilst being totally inexplicable psychologically, and Manon often addresses and seduces her admirers facing away from them and with stock poses. The haunting skeletal accompaniment of the quiet second verse, and Manon's unexpectedly insightful words, go for nothing.

The central theme of Pelly's production is the male gaze and how sex is used as a bartering tool in a society in which women have no power. By no means is Pelly suggesting that women are all just innocent victims - like the men they are greedy and ambitious, it's just that sexual politics is their only tool for getting their way. There are a few moments that made a big impression - Guillot is brutally kicked by Lescaut after the otherwise jolly comic lechery of Act I, which is quite jarring and plunges us back into the cold waters of morality. Even more shocking and telling is the close of Act III. The ballet dancers, who look like they have walked out of a Degas canvas, are carried back onstage after their show, screaming and struggling against their male clients. Manon's ever watchful entourage are the shadowy gents that populate Degas' paintings. We are reminded that Degas' ballet dancers were prostitutes after hours, and were often in a lot of danger as a result: although life is good for Manon (at least for time being), many working women suffered terribly. It felt doubly weird when so many applauded this curtain.

A similar example of degradation in the last act is much less convincing - the soldiers escorting Manon limply prod and kick her as punishment, which just makes one think of the far more likely and obvious way that gangs of men have traditionally chosen to degrade hated women. All in all a mixed production that one feels has a good central idea that the director hasn't quite delivered on.

An aside: not for nothing did Beverly Sills describe the role of Manon as "the French Isolde" - it is extremely long, sits a lot in the middle voice, has frequent excursions below the stave, calls for great flexibility and line and requires ample support and resonance in every register. The rewards to the singer and audience are obvious however. Although a true Isolde voice would be quite unsuited to the part, as with Thais and Esclarmonde it's absolutely obvious from the vocal writing that Massenet did not write this for the light lyric voice that it is seems to be the opera world's current casting preference.

Ermonela Jaho was mixed in the title role. The big Act III arias and duets suited her best vocally, the high lying writing sitting exactly in her best range, and she seemed to have warmed up after a very shaky first two acts. In Act I and II the bright top gave way to an unstable lower middle voice and absolutely no support below the staff. The vibrato was very wide and fast, and the lack of core to the sound added uncertainty to an already unsteady sense of pitch. Feebly floated pianissimos arrived unexpectedly every two bars with no obvious musical logic. Thankfully the middle voice stabilised and the mannered vocal tricks diminished after the first interval and the fourth act was more convincing too. Acting wise, she was very convincingly girlish in the early part of the opera, Manon's wilful nature still charmingly unbridled and compulsive. Unfortunately her transformation to the vampish "princess" persona of Act III and IV was less successful - a very presentational acting style was adopted, that is "showing" the audience feelings and actions rather than them arising from and appearing motivated by concrete desires/objectives. Tellingly, the only time when there was real physical urgency in her interpretation was when she was engaged in a concrete activity which had a very strict time limit and clear standard of success - when she struggles to gather and hide the money in the gambling scene when she thinks the police are arriving. Most of the time it seemed that Jaho was doing an impression of someone who was sexually self confident and demanding - the hammy acting in the amazing seduction scene in the church at Saint-Sulpice a case in point, so too the Gavotte. While this could in itself be a valid acting choice for the character of Manon (that is, that she is merely putting on the sex kitten act and the airs and graces) we would need then to see the vulnerability when the mask is off. The transformation into goodly penitence of Act V was also not convincing, because Manon had been so unabashedly unapologetic before then, but as I have noted, this is a real difficulty of the opera, and so not a major failing of this assumption. I only go into so much detail here because I feel like this vision of the character contains many good things and is exciting, and that it is merely acting technique that is letting it down.

Matthew Polenzani's Chevalier Des Grieux is a simpler case. His singing is tireless and quite beautiful and he has a real sense of French style. It's not the most characterful voice, and there were croony moments during piano singing, but it's largely a very convincing vocal assumption of a challenging role. The physical characterisation is more straight forward and less interesting than Jaho's, but the role itself is less dramatically interesting and has less unusual tasks to do, so registers less as an acting challenge - he's always the manipulated party and so is mostly reacting to situations rather than . The rest of the cast are all quite acceptable though none stand out. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume inspired some good noises from the pit, but there was a lot that was scrappy too, and the music rarely glowed and coursed in the way that Massenet can.

Despite my complaints above, this looks good doesn't it, even if it
inexplicably modern. Perhaps the designs looked better from the stalls?

*His opera Thais has a similar but reversed journey for its leads - the man, Athaniel starts off being religious and because of Thais he discovers his sexuality and gives up religion. Thais starts off being a courtesan and through her meeting with Athaniel becomes a nun. It seems there's no hope for women though, as even although her journey is a path towards purity it's still her that dies and the man that survives.

All photos (c) Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House.

Saturday 11 January 2014

Ravel Double Bill at RCM


Ravel's operas are an odd choice in some ways for a student showcase production because they rely so little on vocal display and contain few roles that could be considered foundational for operatic careers. On the other hand the situation comedy L'heure espagnol provides an immense textual and dramatic challenge in the realm of rapid fire Gallic farce, and the fairy tale parable L'enfant et les Sortileges an object lesson in precise physical and vocal characterisation in each of the tiny roles that comprise the opera's mosaic structure.

Unfortunately James Bonas's double bill production did these young singers few favours. L'heure espagnole is a 'bubble of fancy' to steal Oscar Wilde's phrase, but as with any piece of theatre, we have to believe in the characters and situation and be moved by this set up before they can be truly funny to us. Here each character was instead reduced to a bland caricature floating around in an awkward, spacey set (by Ruari Murchison) which proved unhelpfully restrictive to the action. Containing nothing but a table and the two clocks in question as well as a clock face floor and spiral stair case, this set gave the whole thing the feel of an abstracted psychological setting, which might have made sense had the physical action hadn't been directed as a slap stick pantomime. The singers continually addressed the audience, always a difficult line to walk, and here it wasn't at all clear what the audience's function was within the opera/drama, as in who were we meant to be? What grated most on a purely practical level was that the clocks in which the characters are continually hiding in had open bottoms which were shown to the audience every time they were lifted, instantly destroying the illusion that the person was still inside. Of course we all know that they are not in there, but when we watch a show we buy into the make believe reality in front of us; carelessness like this interrupts and shatters our fragile illusions and unceremoniously ejects us back to our critical minds. Hard to think how something this basic was missed. 

L'heure was however saved by the high musical values of the show. Under Michael Rosewell, the RCM opera orchestra made a truly ravishing sound, warm waves of glitter and gold, with the effect that Ravel's masterpiece sounded something like the most luxuriantly gorgeous film music you've ever heard, even though composed a quarter of a century before Hollywood's golden age. The fact that everyone on stage overacted to such a great degree cannot be blamed on these young artists - if it applies to the entire cast we can usually safely blame the director. Musically all were good, but Kezia Bienek stood out as Concepsión - this is a voice of considerable power, incisive beauty, and is strong in every register. One senses that there is yet more to be unlocked and I look forward to seeing her sing again.

L'enfant et les Sortileges proved slightly more successful staging wise, Ravel's cascading sequence of images registering clearly in the first half, each character obviously making its mark on the child. Then in the transition to the garden scene, instead of a forest we got a return to the clocks of L'heure, via hanging chains and cogs - a curious way of binding the two shows together because its expressive function wasn't at all obvious. There was such chaos at the work's climax that in the fracas I and my companion totally missed the child's moment of contrition and reparation. As I said in the opening paragraph, the fragmentary, non showy nature of the piece makes it hard to single out young singers for special praise, but again all were up to the challenge vocally and Rose Setten's Enfent was great fun to watch, especially in the tantrums of the opening section. The orchestra again made a very fine sound.

A mixed bag then, more engaging musically than dramatically, but the RCM's upcoming Arianna in Creta will surely provide a more obvious platform to display the talents of their singing students.