Tag Archives: BBC Radio 3

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!

Damsel in Red / Véronique Gens + Susan Manoff / Wigmore Hall – 12 December 2011

13 Dec

Véronique Gens left a huge imprint in my mind and heart after her performance of Niobe Regina di Tebe at Covent Garden last year. She was the beating heart of a truly accomplished, odd ball piece by Steffani. Her voice was silken and alluring, her stage presence involving and I really don’t know what is the management of the Hall thinking booking such a great artist for just a one hour long recital of French songs. But we’ll gratefully accept what we can get!

This recital was a walk through in French chanson by three highlighted composers (Massenet, Gounod, Hahn); setting mainly 19th century literary grandees (Victor Hugo, Theophile Gaultier) guided expediently by the sympathetic and rounded playing of Susan Manoff (a great favourite of French opera divas on the concert platform).

The songs by Massenet sang were delivered with lightness of touch and panache. Almost as softly as Gens’ hand was lying against her side. Despite her blazing red/orange dress her approach to singing was about the understatement. She clearly inhabited the material but was not being predictable. Her silences and fading notes seemed as important as her crescendos. She transported us to fields and the side of the sleeping beauty, with such a simplicity of means that was unforced and relatable. When she asked O grands bois, pouvez vous me dire Que devient l’âme des oiseaux?/O forests, can you tell me what becomes of the birds’ soul? ,one doesn’t discount it as the absurd questioning by a mad lady, it’s more verging on a forest psychodrama.

Her La mort de la cigale was the first moment of reflective singing, up to that point everything was breezy and more sweet. The reflections on mortality by referring to the lifecycle  of the cricket and how its end coincides with the end of the harvest. She allows the silences and the pacing that Manoff dictates to create a notional space where the meaning ferments. Sounds maybe pretentious to suggest that, but looking her straight in the eye while delivering the lines, there was a look of certainty and wisdom that was convincing. This section closed with a Spanish flavoured fantasy with a certain amount of sexiness. Her hands almost describing the touching of the loved one,  helping to create the atmosphere of lust, the song closing in a triumphal loudly exhaled amour!

Her Gounod and de Polignac section was focusing on female characters again, from a rebellious belle, to the gorgeously sang Prenda garde/Beware! almost in a similar vein to some 15th century chant by Stile Antico she described a femme fatale that lies to have her own way and asked all listeners not to believe her and to beware. Just the turn of phrase every time she emphasises every warning is both amusing and faintly serious. The Lamento/Lament by de Polignac is a quiet, almost morbid tableaux giving respite and stillness to the recital and altering the faster rhythm up to that point.  The fantasy of the young maid that wants to be taken to the land of love in Où voulez-vous aller?/Where is it you would go? was animated by the vocalise representing the billowing sails in the wind, a wonderful sound suggesting images with the smallest amount of detail, a shorthand weather forecast if ever there was one. The upcoming Sérénade/Serenade was a pulsating, almost danceable tune with her vocal hovering over it, so very simple but still a most beautiful lullaby imaginable. Voluptuous harmonies and expressive colouring added intimacy and flow.

The final section by Hahn was a more reflective set of songs as a whole. The outstanding highlight is Trois jours de vendange/Three days of vintaging describes the meeting with a beautiful girl at harvest and within 5 mins we are transported to her death three days later. The way she delivers the two crucial lines Le cercueil était couvert en velours, Le drap noir portait une double frange/The coffin draped in velvet, the black shroud had a double fringe under a heavy sounding piano is just exquisite. A certain Gallic melancholy feels the air, she was retelling this story with empathy and true sadness. This is the unique winning quality her singing conveys, it does feel genuine and just leads us up the path hand in hand.

As you can tell from the above I am totally in love with Véronique Gens and it’s a good thing to admit it too. She is truly an original, engaging artist that does not resort to easy histrionics but is a thoughtful, mature and complete singer. The velvety beauty of her voice, her lithe appearance and her gift for communication is an intoxicating mix. While I was being Wigmored (a great term to describe how the older members of the audience block all exists from the auditorium, thanks Twitter!) on the way out all you could hear were joyful expressions of appreciation and love. She surely acquired many more fans today (including my other half) with such a wonderfully radiant performance (despite a minor cold that she was nursing).

You can hear it all live within the UK on the iPlayer. It will also be repeated this coming Saturday at 14.00 on BBC Radio 3, so tune in or record it and keep it to listen again and again. There’s hoping that Wigmore Hall Live will release it in the near future, I’ll be first in line to get a copy! I’ll close this with a different rendition of the encore she sang by Poulenc.

Some tweets from the concert

%d bloggers like this: