Archive | July, 2013

Shimmering Strauss / Capriccio / Royal Opera House – 21 July 2013

29 Jul

CapriccioIt has been a week and it is maybe too late to write a long and detailed account but I could not pass the opportunity to write about a truly wonderful evening with one of the greatest Strauss singers of our times. Renée Fleming all too infrequently graces the stage of the Royal Opera House and those two concert performances of Capriccio were the hot ticket of the season. Judging from the people around us quite a few of them were there to tell their friends about it than to watch and be immersed in Strauss’s last opera. Particularly the gentleman next  to me spend most of the two and a half hours staring at his watch , tossing and turning and biting his nails. Something that thankfully happens rarely.

Capriccio like a few of his operas has a long climb over dense recitativi that may seem taxing but I see them as a minor trial for the glorious final pay off. His melodic gift and the way he put together 18th century French motifs with his usual glowing orchestration is such a genuinely sensual experience that cannot be replicated be listening to any recording. The Royal Opera House orchestra was on great form and under Andrew Davis they delivered a mellifluous account of the score, short maybe on a touch of largesse but it was enveloping and luxurious. Due to the dialectic nature of the work not having the staging wasn’t too damaging as it allowed full concentration to the words and music. And that being the main philosophical issue concerning the stage action it cannot possibly be a bad thing.

The cast with the exception of Fleming, Skovhus, Banks and Plaza were using scores but most managed to convey the essence of their character. Particularly the little petulant put downs between Andrew Staples and Christian Gerhaher were delicious and brought out the controlled hilarity of the libretto. Fleming and Skovhus were in a level of their own, bouncing off each other and having a complete command of the stage and projecting strong personalities throughout. Particularly Fleming in her silver Vivienne Westwood dress was exuding finesse and enough upper class deportment to convince, while having a knowing glint in the eye.

Her sublime final monologue was a huge climactic pay off and it was definitely worth the two-hour wait. The uncertainty filled conclusion was rendered in glowing sotto voce with unmistakable depth of feeling. Every gesture a small way in to her inner thoughts, understated and yet impossible for one to take their eyes off her. The star quality of the main heroine in a Strauss opera is for me as part of the experience as the work itself. Without the inner glow and stage experience it can render the work a parody and Strauss’s calculated built ups into dull plateaus. Her final choice between music or text or one of her either suitors Olivier or Flamand and her final indecision was beautifully acted as she picked up the music and the words in separate pieces of paper and tossed the words and longingly looked at the music before she left it on the chair and finished off the scene. We were none the wiser but at heart we hoped that Flamand and her love of his setting for the sonnet won her over.

There were a couple of weak links in the cast but all could be brushed aside at the sight and sound of Fleming who won hearts and minds and the eruption of applause made no secret how much we appreciated all she offered.

The stage was rigged for recording so I do wonder if this performance will be released any time in the future. There is already a recording and DVD with her signing the role so not idea if there is a market for another one. But time will tell.

The Curtain Call

Some Tweets

Capriccio list


Jung Soo Yun + Joseph Middleton / Richard Tauber Prize Recital / Wigmore Hall – 15 July 2013

21 Jul

Yun WigmoreWhat I wasn’t expecting when I attended this Richard Tauber Prize recital was that it would be the final recital in the history of the competition and after 30 recipients since 1951 it will be rolled into the Wigmore Hall  International Song Competitions from 2013. The new Prize will be awarded for the best interpretation of Schubert lieder and it will not carry a Wigmore Hall recital as part of it anymore. A slightly sad but also a good chance to look through the list of the singers that received it over the years, some went on to great careers and some sank without a trace.

Jung Soo Yun fresh out of Opera Holland Park’s Pearl Fishers gave a charming and at times arresting performance. Not a singer to exude ego or unshakable, bombastic over-confidence, but more of an at ease generosity.

His Schubert songs went past in a flash and his voice did not make for a classic combination of material and texture. Sometimes these songs can turn a little be too polite and knowingly elegant and my personal taste veers on wanting a more gritty, more assertive sound.

His Strauss songs, especially Die Nacht showed his impressive ability to shape and colour phrases into an evocative mix of picture making prowess and animated evocation. His open eyed eagerness when singing Nichts had that fresh quality only a younger singer can bring, a feel of young love and melancholy. For Die Georgine he successfully managed to pull back some ardency to allow the lyrical flow to emerge and display a more demure personality in his singing.

The songs by Tosti were a late addition to the programme from what was previously advertised and I can declare him my least favourite art song composer. So was not particularly looking forward to those three songs. But they were proven a great vehicle to display his punchy squillo in Non t’amo più projecting with clarity and ringing sonorities, raising the material above its banal footing. For Ideale depending on his affable stage presence he also impressed with some very italianate rolled Rs in the pivotal line Torna, caro ideal, torna un instante adding a delicious sharpness to it.

It is always enjoyable when a singer picks songs from their own culture and language to sing in recitals and the two Korean songs were so much fun and extroverted that gave a triumphant closing to the song part of the recital before giving way to the two arias. Especially the Sailor’s Song elicited a lot of laughs of admiration and recognition by the numerous Koreans in the audience.

The two arias were by far the most evocative and interpretative complete items.  His Faust was elegant and beautifully projected accompanied by great finesse. The attention to the gentle phrasing and the open throated, secure production was a joy to listen to. His Kuda kuda was restrained and filled with dignity and passion. The reflective mood making for a great end to a recital. He may not have the fetching appearance of Pavol Breslik in the recent ROH Onegin but he definitely can deliver the complex lustful shady world of this aria to good advantage.

Joseph Middleton’s accompaniment was unshowy and communicative without sounding routine. Never trying to overshadow but a team player offering support and propulsion.

His encore Dein ist mein ganzes herz was dedicated to Tauber and sung with great beauty and bounce and the second one was The Lord’s Prayer in Korean, which you can listen to in the curtain call video below. Based on this fetching recital I wish I had seen his Nadir at Holland Park but it is one of those operas that rarely appeals. His Royal Opera debut is coming up this autumn in Les Vêpres Siciliennes directed by Stefan Herheim and will be great to see him as part of such an ensemble cast in a fairly rare opera by Verdi. Another young singer to add to the list of up and coming new stars.

Curtain Call Video

Some Tweets

Yun Wigmore List

Kicking the Prommers to the ground is poor form

17 Jul

BBC PRoms 2013Reading performing artists putting down their own audience never makes any sense to me. Chris Gillett wrote a blog post for Sinfini (the Universal Music financed quasi blogging effort. Apparently tasked to demystify classical music…). He  explains his dislike for older prommers and their rudeness. I have mentioned many times my experience from the two Proms seasons I worked at the Royal Albert Hall as a Steward on Twitter. And I will make it clear that I am not the biggest fan of the ridiculous “sporting” element introduced by the hunt/cattle run for the front of the arena. A lot of the hoggers are smelly, unpleasant people who are there more to be seen than to listen. But they are a minority. His assertion that by abolishing the season passes the crowd would change or be magically younger/different is naive if not ridiculous. Who has the time to go and queue for the Proms? Only the unemployed, students or the retired (sons and daughters of oligarchs are invited to Grand Tier Boxes). So the demographic for the front few rows will look identical season tickets or not.

His conclusion: Now, I’m no great fan of any movement that attempts to make concert-going more appealing to the young at the expense of the middle-aged and elderly. Why should the young have everything their own way? But I really think the Proms needs a shake-up, to break the stranglehold the ageing, die-hard prommers now have on this extraordinary festival.
Seems totally over the top and verging on the disingenuous.

The Proms may have many faults, including a ridiculous sense of self-worth but at least they are truly accessible with the £5 standing promming tickets. And I have taken the opportunity to see many great orchestras and soloists over the last decade for such a small charge. As a Steward I had to intervene many times when arena prommers verbally abused foreign visitors for not following their arcane rules, but this small minority that bullies newcomers exists in any closely-knitted group.  Using such a minority as a shorthand to project our own ideas about what an audience has to be, leads us to some very predictable conclusions.

Classical music circles get into a navel gazing mode rather frequently when they start pondering the older age of their audiences and overall access.The age of the audiences should not be the main object of fascination but the size. Orchestras, opera houses and concert halls should strive to bring in many people from whatever age and background. The senseless pursuit of a mythical group of youngsters that will instantly fall in love with classical and opera is a construct perpetuated by the very people who are meant to help make venues all-embracing in reach. Maybe the ulterior motive is that talking about age is much more convenient because it absolves them from responsibility in looking into their price structures and ticket distribution. Because the  main two reasons for not going to concerts is the failure of music education in schools and the unreasonable ticket prices at certain venues. With the recession biting, potential audiences are very price sensitive.

The Proms with offering nearly 1.000 tickets for £5 at every concert are giving a low cost entry to a world of music seen as unreachable or elitist. Can we celebrate this very fact and refrain from giving in to victimising the faithful punters that attend every season? Despite a wholly unsuitable venue and scorching temperatures the Albert Hall is near sold out for most events. Lets stop this self hating nonsense and wish Mr Gillett good luck the next time he steps on that stage as a comprimario or as a plaything for a new composer. Lets spread the love of good music and stop these nonsensical divisions and finger-pointing.


It seems that pointing out to C G that ignoring the fact that he offended far too many people by being petty and presumptuous and avoiding to respond to any tweets addressed to him…made him unfollow and block me on Twitter. A little hissy fit that makes a great addition to this silly little attention seeking attempt from the grubby Sinfini site.

CG Twitter

Dull fabulosity / Madama Butterfly / Opera Holland Park – 29 June 2013

3 Jul

OHP ButterflyThe prospect of sitting through a performance of Butterfly is not something I tend to anticipate with relish. Returning to it after a near five year hiatus it proved to me that it is a score I cannot stand. Full of rather out of date ideas of “the orient” and with paper thin characters that do not excite me very much. It would be foolish not to acknowledge Puccini’s skill into interweaving melodies throughout the score in a very sophisticated manner, for instance the crescendo of the love duet from Act One gets recalled many times while Butterfly reminisces while everyone around her do not believe that Pinkerton will return.  But my main objection about the work as a whole is the obvious, blatant emotional manipulation he attempts, the crude black and white world of good and evil, Butterfly vs Pinkerton.

For an opera of the verismo persuasion it is lacking the very fundamental trait, of having a more realistic outlook. The opposite ends of morality collide in the most simplistic manner. Are we to believe that she is an innocent victim to the predatory hands of an American? It all just feels sordid and unsophisticated. A story that is underlined by a misogynistic, patriarchal culture clash fails to create ripples of excitement.

This production is also very static and with the least interesting set I have seen in a while. A long winding promenade lined with semi transparent fabric replicating the aesthetic of a traditional Japanese house and with only one set of doors in the centre (which curiously, when closed, locked into a popped up position attracting unwanted attention and adding a bit of unintended hilarity) didn’t quite help set the stage for the tragic story. This opera gives the possibility to explore the indoor/outdoor connection and to take advantage more of transparency as a story telling tool. But here the set was stolid and passive and while the body movement side of the personenregie was an interesting aspect (by Namiko Gahier-Ogawa) but the direction overall seemed lost and indistinct.
Some may interpret it as a production that doesn’t meddle with Puccini’s drama but to me it just seemed to under-sell it due to the lack of spectacle. The costuming was equally dull, redolent with the usual east/west clichés. Pinkerton in navy uniform and profusion of gold buttons, Butterfly and Suzuki in wigs looking as soft as crude stone carvings and kimonos. Also the make up let Yamadori down, his baldness looking shiny and latex laden in contrast to the clear naturalistic streak through the show.
The iconic use of the American flag, brought on stage by Pinkerton in Act One to cover his case of bourbon, later becoming the symbol of his absence as she places it on his empty arts and crafts chair. In the devastating finale she tears a piece of it and covers her son’s eyes as he sits on his father’s chair his back turned to his mother committing Jigai. A very powerful last tableaux that made it obvious what Durpels can do if given a convincing situation to act out.

The singing was of very high standard. Particularly Anne Sophie Duprels and Patricia Orr had a wonderful stage chemistry each sang with deep conviction and emotional sincerity. Cannot think of a more suited voice for Butterfly than our leading lady, she has a timbre made for Puccini with a gorgeous plush sound accompanied by a clipped sharpness that enunciates every word to its best advantage her Che tua madre dovrà was chilling with a fine balance between dignity and deep desperation. Many singers will go on a barrage of histrionics erring on the side of vulgarity but Duprels was perfectly judged and made the night into a most memorable one. Shame that Joseph Wolverton despite his beautifully bright timbre, the delivery in his upper register was a bit pinched and his acting a little too plain, in total contrast to Duprels. We were not shown much behind the arrogant, unsophisticated façade. But the casting of a more mature Pinkerton made him more of the revolting sex tourist Illica and Giacosa are describing and insinuating in the libretto.

The Sharpless of David Stephenson was strongly voiced even though he gave more the impression of an English baritone trying too hard to sound more Italianate. Sometimes pushing too hard and sounding blustery. But his involvement with the character at an emotional level was evident. Looking forward to seeing him sing Macbeth for Scottish Opera next March, can imagine him a much better match for Verdi’s denser writing.

The supporting roles were performed to a high standard, with the standouts being the pantomime pimp of a Goro by Robert Burt and the alluringly voiced and apologetically distant Kate Pinkerton of  Chloe Hinton. Manlio Benzi’s conducting was swift and forceful moving along the action to its crushing conclusion.

But the evening had one towering performance, that one of Duprels. Who despite my misgivings on Puccini’s musical language and subject matter gave a stunningly believable Cio-Cio San, lithe in body, economical in gestures and overall movement but with luscious vocal supplies that lifted this production to a much higher level. Her good taste and decorum made a character that is pathetic as it is loving and betrayed. Selfish in her lack of acceptance of change and yet shame claiming her life. A level of complexity that interweave drama, poetry and music to a seductive mix, only possible through the alchemic power of opera.

Some tweets from the evening

Curtain Call Video

OHP Butterfly List

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