Archive | October, 2012

Fabulous by name diabolical by nature / Giulio Cesare / English National Opera – 16 October 2012

18 Oct

To call the latest ENO production of Giulio Cesare vacant, wilfully ugly and spectacularly miscalculated would give you an idea of how bad it really is. Director/Choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan took the gem of Handel’s opera seria output and tarnished it with a jumble of unrelated directorial flourishes, most notably the silly interpretative dance that is both relentless and particularly offensive.
Getting non opera specialist directors in the House, ENO has created a few unexpected hits but mainly it has resulted in unqualified monstrosities. The set was a featureless concave wall made of chipboard that was only used effectively in the final act when covered in a cloth patterned with a wild seascape while Cleopatra sings her dramatic Piangerò la sorte mia shame that it had to be accompanied by an ugly filament bulb but that is a small detail in a production that gave us, unforgivably anonymous costuming and hideous wigs (my heart goes out to Tim Mead for that red octopus on his head) a giraffe and crocodile littering pointlessly the stage, some foldable chairs from a local authority gym, noisy metal buckets filled with ridiculous amounts of fake blood and in one case sand.
When the props start causing the audience to laugh you know you have messed up the production. Had anyone been standing in the corridors of the Coliseum at the start of Act One, and while the obviously immobile/dead crocodile was shot and then doused with a bucket of blood while most of the audience laughed in disbelief, one would think a comedy was on, not one of Handel’s most beautiful, tragedy infused works.
Most of the singers were used as lifeless props while the dancers pranced about. Obviously Keegan-Dolan had very little time for the singers as actors and too much time for his own dance troupe (Fabulous Beast)…a hierarchy that should have rang bells early on with the artistic management of the Company.  This production is an equally miserable night in the theatre for both cast and audience, robbing the singers of the elegant simplicity of embodying a character without the superfluous addition of stage clutter and empty gestures.
The only two singers that managed to cut through the idiocy were Patricia Bardon and Daniela Mack who gave us raw emotion and human warmth in a sea of blandness. They both sang beautifully and created their own microcosm despite the director’s awful idea to make Sesto into a daughter, thus removing the central reference to gender politics that is the moving force of the story.
Tim Mead’s Tolomeo was beautifully voiced but totally lost his way in a slapstick, non-threatening cartoonish approximation of villainy. The audience laughed out loud as he dragged in the head of the giraffe and proceeded to remove the tongue with his bare hands and threaten Cornelia with it. It was not dramatic or engaging, just a ridiculous waste of time.
I will say it once and for all, that I’d rather have a mezzo sing the eponymous role as having three counter-tenors in one opera becomes tiresome. Lawrence Zazzo is undeniably a star but was too trapped by the direction to create a believable character. He became another prop laden, dancer suffocated casualty. His Aure, deh per pietà was the absolute highlight of his performance when he was allowed to be alone on stage and his characterisation took flight. But it was too little too late for us to believe in his Cesare, after having laughed out loud far too many times but that point.

This production also had the dubious honour to offer us the least sexy Cleopatra imaginable, Anna Christy is a striking singer but who has a very particular glassy lyric coloratura voice not really up to the voluptuous/lascivious requirements of the heroine Handel depicts in his opera. We found it very difficult to believe she could seduce anyone but a man with a serious fetish for awful wedding dresses, judging on her terrible white number she wore after the second interval. Also singing V’adoro, pupille on top of a table and to a microphone like a cheap cabaret act was just silly and inconsistent with the rest of the production. She also had to sing Piangero while she is surrounded by dancers complete with wings taking again the focus off the singer at such a pivotal moment. At least she was left alone during Se Pietà di me non senti and she gave us a rendition of utter delicacy and undeniable sadness.

What makes this production even more depressing is that back in March I was lucky enough to attend a sparkling production by Tim Albery for Opera North with Sarah Tynan, Helen Pamela Stephen and Kathryn Rudge. The gorgeously utilitarian but with a hint of luxury production by Leslie Travers was a triumph. It is unbelievable that a company with fewer resources at their disposal can create a sublime experience when the ENO created a complete mess that I very much doubt will ever be revived.

To close on a positive note, Christian Curnyn’s conducting was vibrant and attentive. He clearly is a singer’s conductor and it shows. His period instrument background comes handy when it comes to coaxing a very special lustrous sound from ENO’s ensemble. He tirelessly shaped every single nuance in the score and created meaning in a staging that had such an embarrassing paucity of ideas and insight. He also conducted the exquisite Castor and Pollux last year and is also back to conduct Charpentier’s Medea with Sarah Connolly in early 2013 with David McVicar directing.

This performance was recorded for BBC Radio 3 and is scheduled for broadcast on November 3rd, listen in and make your own mind up!

What did Kasper say? / In Conversation / Clore Studio, Royal Opera House – 12 October 2012

13 Oct

Usually I couldn’t care for the over-priced insight events at the Royal Opera but this time having the chance to see what the fairly interview shy new Director of Opera had to say about his first year at Covent Garden was alluring. I can happily report that it was worth it, read on if you want to know what was said.

From the outset his enthusiasm for opera and directing was evident. He talked about his childhood and how initially he got hooked on it by going to a visit with a tutor at age 9 to see Carmen. He recalled how he was blown away by the experience. A particularly funny episode was his retelling of organising a Ring cycle from the age of 13-16 in a LEGO constructed theatre, making the whole family watch it. He even managed to write a letter to the director of the opera house and the minister of culture to ask why one had to be 18 in order to take advantage of the young people discount scheme. They changed the policy so the precocious 13 year old Kasper could buy cheaper tickets with his pocket money.

The talk was indispersed with three excerpts from his productions in Copenhagen of The Ring, Nielsen’s Maskarade and Die tote Stadt.

Edward Seckerson asked him about the tension between being a creative force and having to do a lot of admin as part of his job at Covent Garden. Holten mused that his life has possibly come full circle as he comes from a family of financiers (his mother having been the Governor of the Bank of Denmark) he was expecting to go into banking but instead chose the life in the theatre. He seemed to be very pragmatic that the two productions a year that he is allowed by his contract to direct have an impact on his deputy and PA but it seems he would not want a job that would not allow him to direct in House and out.

He was asked whether he would compromise rehearsal time in order to accommodate big stars like Kaufmann.  His response was a bit roundabout, bordering on the meandering but he seemed unhappy to create a precedent by allowing big names to show up a couple of weeks before a show starts. He did make the distinction between singers that grow in rehearsal and others who do not find it as stimulating. But he mentioned that the camaraderie that develops during a full rehearsal period is an essential part of the mix for an as good a performance as possible. But he concluded that some smart administrative decisions could see them programme big names for productions that don’t need a lengthy period of rehearsals.

On the subject of commissioning new work and allowing the national composers emerge, in the mould of Poul Ruders in Copenhagen where three operas where staged (most notably A Handmaid’s Tale). He went to great lengths to point out that for him Covent Garden is not a national opera house but an international one and even though Thomas Adès is writing a new work for the main stage he wants composers from all over the world to have an equal chance to stage a major project with the Royal Opera. He did mention the great work ENO does with new music and commissions. He went to lengths to point out that the House would not be the right place for a young composer to write their first opera (he quipped that the first one is usually not very good) he wanted composers with a developed voice and some stage experience.

On the subject of modern/traditional productions he thought the distinction was redundant and that he had directed in both idioms, led by the work itself. He was warned that London audiences are too conservative and would not accept modern productions and he responded that in his experience the audience is discerning but expects good storytelling/a clear narrative. As he exclaimed this is after all the country of Shakespeare and BBC drama. He wants opera to be relevant (not in a jeans and trainers way) but to talk about life as it is. Emphasising that the companies have to believe in the greatness of the material and the extraordinary nature of the artistry required to promote the art form.  He contemned Regietheater as a creative dead and ridden with clichés (to the chagrin of the rather elderly audience). The conversation wandered to Stefan Herheim and he confirmed that his predecessor had engaged him for the 2013 season for a Verdi opera (the rumours suggest Les Vespres Siciliennes), he expressed his admiration for him and his very physical, dramatic productions. He also made a point about La Donna del Lago that he scrapped the Lluis Pasqual directed co-produced production with La Scala and the Opéra when he realised that it was not a good one. And he said that such a great cast (Didonato/Flórez/Barcellona) deserved a new production and he’d rather spend the small budget on it than spend it on promoting a production that was fundamentally unsuitable for the piece (we all remember the ludicrous chain mail costumes). Boasting that his upcoming Onegin and DDL had the smaller budgets in Royal Opera’s history but hoping they would not seem cheap to the audiences.

On the subject of the cinema broadcasts and live online relays (prompted by two audience members questions) he mentioned how he originally (when the Met HD series started) did not believe that opera in the cinema would work but was happy to be proven wrong. He said that it was imperative for the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet to have a worldwide presence in cinemas and that wherever possible they would like to challenge the exclusivity on venues by the Met. As for online streaming he thought the costs involved are prohibitive due to the low levels of public subsidy (in comparison to Central Europe), but he’s hoping to work more with The Space like they did for Les Troyens.

He mentioned that a major part of his decision to move to Covent Garden was working with maestro Pappano, who he thought had the most incredible curiosity and musicality, making him possibly the best musical director in any of the major opera houses. He also made clear that for him a sense of personality in the programming was important despite the fact that is not always possible due to casting restrictions. Exclaimed how courage was very important and not playing it safe all the time, offering as an example his work on staging Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger in the coming seasons. Also defended the long runs of “classics” like Traviata, Tosca and Bohème as a good way to bring new audiences in. Quoting that 30% of the audience for La Traviata were new to the House.

He kept on repeating how important it was for him to have more affordable tickets and how aware he was that the audience in the House is not as representative of London’s overall diversity and vitality. Also seemed to be keenly aware that the online presence and booking system of the ROH still needs work but he was confident the investment would pay off.

The Baroque question

Unfortunately I did not get the chance to ask my main question of their deplorable use of their young artists or about the significant lack of British talent for the juiciest parts, but instead managed to approach him after the talk to enquire about the lack of baroque opera from the main stage.

His response was that he was aware of that gap and he had conversations with the rest of the management but was worried that maybe the auditorium is too big for a satisfactory experience. Mentioning  that ENO and Glyndebourne having a great record at presenting this repertoire in the UK. When I responded with how extraordinary was Niobe Regina di Tebe and if he had the chance to see it. He responded that he hadn’t experienced it for himself but was aware it had troubles selling tickets and that any such projects will need a period instrument specialist orchestra. So in other ways it means that Covent Garden in its current state will not produce any more baroque opera for the Main Stage, which is deeply regrettable in my view. Had I  had the time I would have mentioned the obvious flaws of his thinking around baroque, as the ENO has a larger auditorium than the ROH and also they use their in house orchestra with mainly modern instruments as do the other regional companies.

Overall what came through from the talk was his vibrancy and will to succeed in the role but also a keen sense to be realistic about what can be achieved at the Royal Opera. Left me feeling positive about the future of the House and its programming despite its obvious lack of will to stage baroque, the very starting point of the illustrious art it promotes.

Some excerpts from the talk will be circulated by the Royal Opera in the coming weeks will try to link to them here so you get a more direct sense of the talk.

What KJ and Watson call a high profile engagement

8 Oct

Last week Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire was the host of a much glittering occasion that had three main guests: Katherine Jenkins, Russell Watson and Elaine Page. On my persistent enquiries on Twitter the repertoire was not quite leaked near the time to see exactly what KJ and RW played for this rare acoustic concert. Le Manoir’s twitter staffers were very good at deflecting criticism especially when I expressed my disappointment that such low brow acts were booked for their rich and eminent clientele. After all, on those three nights it cost £450 for the concert but included a Laurent-Perrier Champagne and canapé reception prior to the concerts followed by a five course meal with accompanying wines, coffee and petits fours after the performance , as explained to an emailed response. Interestingly this was also a rare occasion that both of them sang an acoustic set with a piano…aka what all recitalists normally do.

But what did the patrons of this illustrious establishment listened to? (list appended as communicated by them)

4 October 2012 –  Katherine Jenkins

Habanera – Georges Bizet

Les Filles de Cadiz – Léo Delibes

Pie Jesu – Gabriel Fauré

Hallelujah – Leonard Norman Cohen

Music of the night – Andrew Lloyd Webber

Angel – Sarah McLachlan

I dreamed a dream – Claude-Michel Schönberg

A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square – Manning Sherwin

Parla piu piano (love theme from the Godfather) – Nino Rota

I could have danced all night – Music by Frederick Loewe, Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner

Plus an encore

5 October 2012 – Russell Watson

‘O sole mio

Intermezzo

Panis angelicus

Core ‘ngrato

Piano Solo:
18th variation on a theme of Paganini
Rachmaninov

Una furtiva

Vesti la giubba

Parla piu piano

Caruso

Piano Solo: Waltz in C# minor Chopin

Swing low

Jerusalem

So it was the predictable mix of off-key opera arias and the mainstay repertoire of popular entertainers. Glad to see that KJ still only has one aria proper in her armoury…and both share the Godfather theme.
It’s a list that puzzles in its thrown together nature but it also betrays that they know their audience well and give them what they want…the famous bits from their CDs.
It seems that in the past Le Manoir had been host to Montserrat Caballé which goes to prove some of their seasons have aimed much higher. Thank heavens for the Wigmore Hall who allows access to the greatest classical recitalists all year round. If you know anyone that went to those two concerts maybe drag them to a recital so they can see what the real thing is like. At least they had the benefit of delicious food!

PS I had no reason to ask for Elaine Page’s set as she is a singer that I respect for her dedication to musical theatre. And surely not one to be a stranger to an intimate recital or two.

Faux outrage goes hand in hand with faux artistry

8 Oct

This morning I read this blog post by James Rhodes, who I was not that impressed by when I saw live last year, it has to be said. And while I agree totally with his trashing of the brand of classical music the Classic BRITs are promoting, I could not stop thinking about the obvious disjunction of that blog post and Mr Rhodes’ own career path. A man who seems to be unhappy to be called a concert pianist most of the time and now coming out on his blog to somehow be the supporter of “proper” classical music…

Unfortunately for Mr Rhodes his audience is of the same demographic as the people who buy tickets for the BRITs. I was saddened to see a lot of people repost Rhodes’ faux outrage drivel. If you want to read a reasoned and well argued piece try this one by Chris Gillett, he surely is not writing out of bitterness.

Here is my response to the blog post in case the Telegraph deletes it from their site:

While I agree with most points, I find it intriguing, coming from Mr Rhodes, a product of the great pop machine that was used up and spat out by Warner Music. His first double album was out on a pop/rock label and being promoted to the same people who the Classic BRITs are addressed to. To come out all outraged that the very line of business he agreed to be part of, is somehow offending his latent sensibilities seems totally hypocritical.
I would like to know how many times has Mr Rhodes been invited by any serious orchestras to play with them in his capacity as the “non threatening piano dude”?
Anyone can rent a hall and pretend to be a concert pianist but not many are in demand by the LSO, LPO, BBCSO, Philharmonia etc.
Jenkins and Watson and their peers are total frauds with very little talent and training. But despite what Mr Rhodes’ fans may have convinced themselves he is…he remains at best a gifted amateur. Hope his recent career choice to move to a serious classical label will bear some fruit in the future, but save us the faux outrage.

Dangerous sex appeal and OAP “dancing” / Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers: Three eras of divas / Royal Festival Hall – 30 September 2012

2 Oct

What can anyone say about Anna Caterina Antonacci that hasn’t been written over and over again over the last twenty years. On Sunday night she proved to be one of the finest dramatic singers of our times. Dressed in a gorgeous silk crepe dress in darkest charcoal, resembling molten rubber in its movement and pearl jewellery she looked every inch the diva.

Ana Cata listAnyone starting a programme with Medea’s Act One aria is asking for trouble and indeed she did sound not fully warmed up and an aria of such emotional depth that makes demand from the widest extents of the singer’s range is a risk. Of course what makes Antonacci such a supreme artist is her sense of danger, her magnetic sex appeal and her consummate attention to the material at hand. Her ability to switch on to the character in seconds from the musical introduction is astonishing at close proximity, her eyes flaming with the rage of the abandoned woman who comes to claim Jason as hers. One is incapable to take their eyes off her, the fresh sounding OAE created the perfect conditions for Antonacci to weave her spell with this most favourite of arias. Her delivery may not have been as smooth as could have been but Cherubini’s intended vim and brilliance were there in abundance.

The biting command of the character and reality she brought to it continued in her other arias. Having portrayed two of  the characters on stage before must have been a great help for her.
O malheureuse Iphigénie was deeply moving with her singing caressing the delicate playing of the orchestra.  Once more her incisive singing, paying attention to every single word was simply wonderful. Many a singer can get on a concert platform and do a diva approximation, Antonacci embodied the grandeur of Gluck’s tragedy with such decorum and charisma. Proving what a rare commodity she really is.

After the interval she sang Didon’s last aria from Les Troyens Je vais mourir… Adieu, fière cité and while she may not have the smooth plush sound that Eva-Maria  spoilt us with, in the recent staging at the Royal Opera, she brought an immaculate presence and sense of drama and precision to the text. What she did for Cassandre at Covent Garden she pretty much repeated on a concert platform for Didon. A perfect example why I am unhappy tolerate inadequate acting on the operatic stage, a pretty sounding voice and immaculate technique are never enough, especially when a theatrical dynamo like Antonacci is gracing stages worldwide.

Her encore was Chanson Bohème from Carmen (a great lead into the Bizet symphony that followed) and again her vibrant characterisation and passionate delivery was short of astounding. An instant reminder of her past as the seminal Carmen   of the last 15 years. And again the transition from distraught queen of Carthage to furious gypsy was instantaneous and complete. This was seriously an evening not to be forgotten.

Of course you will ask how was the Haydn and the Bizet and I will tell you very good as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is too professional to be dragged down by Roger Norrington’s barely there conducting. I am afraid the Haydn conducting consisted of the nation’s favourite conducting granddad in his nightgown dancing embarrassingly to every change of tempo and subtle nuance. It maybe would have been better to try to bring together the different parts of the symphony instead of giving us the Norrington show which was excruciating. Instead of maybe having the score for both pieces he was just reduced to a strange acrobatic act. Interestingly when a score was produced for the arias and the dances by Gluck the conducting was a bit more focused and the orchestra responded accordingly.

The orchestra acquitted itself with some deliciously French sounding playing with oboes creating the colourful backbone for Gluck and Cherubini, while Lisa Beznosiuk’s flute playing was a constant source of joy, particularly in the second movement of the Haydn.  They were also helped by the more resonant acoustic of the hall, since the organ loft was open (with half the pipes still away for restoration) adding much-needed reverberation.

I wonder if the acres of empty seats inside the Royal Festival Hall can be attributed to Norrington or just that on a Sunday night Londoners are not prepared to get out for one of the greatest singers of our times? Whatever the reason, it was a shame for her to have to look out at a half full auditorium.

Looking forward to the second instalment of the series next month with the beloved Sarah Connolly …thankfully this concert takes place at the smaller, nearby, Queen Elizabeth Hall.

And on a shamelessly commercial level…I would urge everyone to get a copy of this just released song recital from the Wigmore Hall.

Some tweets from the evening


Antonacci in action

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