Tag Archives: Bryan Hymel

My Top 12 of 2012

20 Dec

2012 graphicThe end of the year and we all give in to the convention of going through the draws of our minds and paying tribute to the most entertaining and uplifting events of the year. I published a top 11 list last year and thought I’d avoid innovation and go for a top 12 for this year. I am only hoping I will not be blogging in the year 2040 as the list will become too long.

Mittwoch aus Licht

Was a cross-disciplinary spectacular. Thought as unstagable but somehow Graham Vick managed to take us all on a journey. It was cooky, it was extravagant and above all a memory to last a lifetime. Cue in helicopters, cosmic camels and a trombonist in a paddling pool. Here’s my post on the experience.
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Alice Coote

Her interpretation of Winterreise was one of the most moving performances of the year. Her programme in honour of  Kathleen Ferrier was a joy to listen to. Her concentrated deeply tragic version of Britten’s cantata Phaedra was also wonderful. We are very lucky to have her and delighted the Wigmore Hall thinks so too.
The CD and download of her Wigmore Hall Winterreise is available to buy from 8 April 2013, here’s the link to the Amazon UK page.

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Calixto Bieito’s Carmen

English National Opera were so right to bring to London this extraordinary directorial tour de force. One of the few times when a very strong directorial concept marries with an opera so deeply they become one. The production was an earthy manifestation of Bizet’s masterpiece with such assurance and self-containment that enthralled.
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Anja Harteros in Otello

That was a night of wonderment and astounding depth. Even the creaky fusty old production didn’t matter. It was impossible to avert one’s eyes from the purposeful, intense Desdemona underpinned by a complexity so inspiring. Harteros may have a lot of detractors and her record at showing up for shows may not be the most consistent. This performance left me tingling and wanting to see her again soon.
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McVicar’s Rosenkavalier at ENO

What a beautiful, non-fussy production with a great cast that understood what Strauss is all about. John Tomlison, Sarah Connolly, Sophie Bevan and Amanda Roocroft had a wonderful chemistry on stage with Edward Gardner creating a most dense gold coloured sound from the pit that made it a very special evening.
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Scottish Opera’s Magic Flute

A beautiful steam punk inspired production by Thomas Allen made by a singer for the singers. Showed Scottish Opera in a great light despite the recent financial and organisational ups and downs. It was well cast and the sure-fire hit they need to help them stay relevant and afloat.
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Opera North’s Giulio Cesare

With the great sets of Leslie Travers and pacey direction of Tim Albery. The performance was built around the radiant and alert performance of Sarah Tynan who was an ideal Cleopatra and Pamela Helen Stephen’s earthy Caesar was the compete opposite all battlefield mud and conflict. The production was tightly knit and beautifully sung throughout. The Royal Opera may stay away from any baroque opera but thank heavens that regional companies are not as apathetic towards the interpretation possibilities of it. And are willing to tour it across the country to thousands of people in the regions.

Ailyn Pérez

I still remember the buzz before her unexpected recital in March (she took over for an indisposed Giuseppe Filianoti) rushed to grab some tickets to see her and was not disappointed. Her creamy delivery and melting honesty was such a potent blend. She is an artist to watch and can’t wait to see her return to London very soon.
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Véronique Gens

She is  firm favourite of mine and had the chance to see her in action twice in the last few months at the Wigmore Hall. Her delivery of mélodies was exemplary, fusing a breezy natural style with a warm stage presence. Her singing manages to look effortless and yet is full of innate good taste and finesse. 
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Royal Opera’s Les Troyens

The production was overall hit and miss, but the incredibly vibrant,  Cassandre of a real tragedienne like Anna Caterina Antonacci the butch Enee of Bryan Hymel,  the variable but very regal Eva-Maria Westbroek and the sparkling tenor of  Ed Lyon made for a very memorable musical evening. So much so, that I snapped up another ticket and made my way to the very gods of the lower slips of the Amphitheatre not phased by the uncomfortable sitting arrangements over the over five hours duration. 
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Magical Ravel double bill at Glyndebourne

It was my first visit to Glyndebourne and it was everything I hope for and even more. Both productions were simply magical. Especially the brand new L’enfant et les sortilèges was as joyful to watch as it was to listen. The London Philharmonic played with such distinction and style that left us buzzing. Also the long interval was very welcome and our restaurant meal was expensive but also utterly delicious. Laurent Pelly was clearly at home in the whimsical and magical worlds of the two jewel like operas.
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Sarah Connolly

Another firm favourite and one singer I can not have enough of. Saw her sing Elgar, French baroque and Strauss. All of them distinctive all of them spectacular in their own right. Her upcoming Charpentier Medea with McVicar directing for ENO will be a great start for 2013 and her appearance as Phèdre in Hippolyte et Aricie at Glyndebourne will have me booking for a return trip to East Sussex in August. 
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So many more entries could have made it here but the above are a quick distillation of some great evenings out and being present for some music making of great quality and variety. 2013 will hopefully be as full and interesting, maybe even bringing with it some surprises and new discoveries. A big thanks is owed to all my readers for putting up with my meandering blog posts. Have written this blog based on my belief that opera is alive and constantly changing and as a way to inspire others to give it a go. If just a single reader was inspired or intrigued to go to an opera or classical performance in the last year, it would make writing this blog all the more enjoyable and purposeful. 

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Robert le terrible / Robert Le Diable / Royal Opera House – 9 December 2012

15 Dec

ROH Robert Le DiableWhen asked about redeeming features by my partner I was very short on examples. Meyerbeer’s score is eventful put inarticulate and at times inappropriate. But the major culprit of making this a dour night out is Laurent Pelly, a director very close to my heart. But this time he has seriously misjudged the mood and setting. Betraying both the source material and making it a slog for audience and singers.

The reputation of Meyerbeer’s music is for bombastic nonsense and a few well crafted arias. What I did not expect was the lack of any dramatic quality or theatrical value in this score, not helped by a meandering plot and a libretto that is a mess. Even the translation caused the odd unintended giggle. Robert’s question to Bertram (referring to the just departed Alice) ‘What has come all over her’ was one such cringeworthy moment. An indicator how far down the pantomime route this staging has taken the work.
Meyerbeer did compose Robert as a three act comic opera and had to modify it into a five act spectacular with ballet to fulfil the requirements of the Paris Opéra. And listening to the music the constant change of mood and tone creates the impression that this was a work written by committee, such is the disparity of the  constituent parts that any semblance of integration is woefully absent. One moment we have a seriously bombastic trombone laden intro to the scene between Bertram and Robert with a few sharp exchanges taking place and out of a sudden a break appears in the form of a harp solo, stopping the action on its tracks and just making for a rude interruption. That was one such strange jolt in the plot that takes many more forms throughout the 4 1/2 hours of its duration.
A more sensitive director would have created a more integrated spectacle to counter-balance the plot and patchy music. But Pelly in his near pantomime parody of the opera accentuates all the worst aspects of the composition, from the chorus swaying in tune to the music to the excessive placement of singers on the proscenium and making them sing straight to the audience.

Another aggravating factor of the production was the low quality of the stagecraft, sets being used badly and disappear clumsily. The stage hands being noisy and actually heard very clearly shouting at each other, behind the curtain, during the overture. Seeing hands moving the silly castle in Act Two was a particular low, alongside Alice being wheeled from side stage left on engraved clouds on wheels in Act Five. Allowing a large quantity of confetti from the end of Act Four to occupy the foreground of Act Five was both unsightly and an indication of negligent clean up during set changes. May seem minor but it was an indication of sloppy staging.

The two sets that really worked beautifully were the beguiling mountainous construction in Act Three taking the engraved look to an apogee and using the height of the stage to its advantage. But shamefully let down by the silly pantomime acting which robbed any sense of gravitas. And the set for the notorious nun ballet at the second half of Act Three was the most beautiful gothick construction, the incline adding a great perspective. The rust colour of the rails and the dark stone and greys throughout were a moody addition. Now if only the ballet and the acting overall was more convincing this could have been a heart stopping scene. Obviously the music does not help, when it turns into the most generic music to hop to since Adolphe Adam’s near contemporary La Fille du Danube. But again this lack of cohesion and episodic nature of this scene betrays the revisions made when it was reworked in collaboration with Filippo Taglioni for his super star ballerina daughter Marie. Mayerbeer extended the ballet for the first staging in Berlin and I wonder if the rather conventional and unimaginative middle part of it came from that time.

In Act Four, once more the white lego castle appeared, with quite a few stage hands visible…not inspiring confidence and we got confetti to tie together the wedding theme. Thank heavens for Ciofi’s beautiful rendition of Robert, toi que j’aime which was technically near flawless but somehow lacking in emotion, not helped by the cartoony throne and ridiculous surroundings. But at least the Act was topped by the hilariously hammy breaking of the branch by Robert (the one  he stole from the cloister of St Rosalia). At this point I had lost the will to laugh and all I could muster was just a slow head shake.

Act Five was the time for the build your own church template set. If that was meant to be a stand in for Palermo Cathedral it was both a poor idea and rather cheap looking. The Palace of Palermo as seen previously and it’s distinct papery texture was the lap of luxury in comparison. So a lot of people walked in and out of this church structure made out of white icing (ok almost). Nothing of much consequence happened, despite the fact Robert at last learns that Bertram is the devil and we got some pantomime green lighting showing evident fury…as Hymel’s face had a fixed mad look. But then we have the main (very thin) plot mechanism unfold at last…Robert gets given his mother’s will from Alice (and with Poplavskaya sounding quite hoarse by that point) it was a panto scene too far. The way Bertram gets swallowed by a monstrous face at stage right is so ridiculous to be risible but then Pelly adds the final touch with him before curtain fall walking across the stage with his suitcases.

Overall the performance of the orchestra under Daniel Oren was disappointing. The fervour was missing and his cautious reading failed to ignite the more bright parts of the score.
Brian Hymel as Robert sounded stretched to the absolute max while navigating a maze of high Cs and the odd D. The part alongside  the one of Isabelle is written in a very idiosyncratic way with very little relation to the rest of the vocal scoring. As Meyerbeer did customise the parts to the famous singers that were asked to sing those parts at the Paris Opéra. Hymel’s voice seemed at odds with the highly lyrical melodic material and despite his heroic struggle the voice took an ugly cast from all the extra effort involved.

Patrizia Ciofi was a good vocal match and delivered her arias with stellar results but remained definitely forgettable after the curtain fell. Her stage presence seems to me to lack any memorable features. She shows up, sings beautifully and not much else. The dramatic investment was just not there. My highlight was her tender rendition of En vain j’espère in Act Two which was unfortunately undermined by being acted for laughs. Maybe replacing Jennifer Rowley four days before the première was not such a great idea.

John Relyea was vocally strong and consistent if not terribly sophisticated. His greatest achievement being his aria and resulting duet with Alice in Act Three where he was allowed to show his dark side by the direction. But somehow his singing through the rest of the show seemed more coaxed out than released with relish and menace.

Marina Poplavskaya on the other hand was a really good fit for the part of Alice. Her at time astringent tone fits well with the material and she sang very well despite having obvious vocal problems caused by a reported cold. In Act Three her Quand je quittai la Normandie had the seed of a great performance but unfortunately her cold led to considerable scoops to the note and a major crack in a fully throated C. In full health I can imagine she would be immensely enjoyable.

The smaller parts were very well performed with a particular highlight the debut of Jean-Francois Borras who had huge amounts of fun being Raimbaut and had the unforced native sound that Hymel or Relyea ultimately lacked. Lets hope we get to see him again at the ROH soon.

As you can tell everyone, this evening at the Royal Opera House was arduous and with very little returns. I had to get rid of my Orchestra Stalls tickets and saved myself a serious amount of money and the aggravation of seeing this seriously off putting production. Maybe a less tongue in cheek production would accentuate the positive aspects of the work but I am afraid Pelly’s dead comic hand gave us an evening verging on the tragicomical. 

It was utterly disappointing and possibly the last time any of Meyerbeer’s music will see that particular stage for years to come. Robert Le Diable’s position as a historic curio remains. It is being broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and also will be released as a DVD/Bluray in 2013, so hopefully you will have the chance to examine closely this production.

ROH Robert Le Diable list

[youtube http://youtu.be/NbdVJilEKvM]

Courses for horses / Les Troyens / Royal Opera House, Covent Garden – 5 + 11 July 2012

14 Jul

The most anticipated opera production of this summer in London (aside tenuous connections to the dreadful 2012 Festival) a new production of this operatic behemoth. The signs were bad when the stalwart tenor Jonas Kaufmann had to withdraw and Brian Hymel took on the role of Enée. A lot of concerns were voiced and predictions of doom and gloom. Of course what opera fans should have worried about was the dead hand of David McVicar who proved once more to lack both a revelatory insight or even an unshakable overarching vision. The production is patchy and doesn’t really serve the material well.

In a work with considerable longueurs courtesy of Berlioz a bad production can make it from uncomfortable in length to unbearable. McVicar seems to only care for the first two Acts who were crowd managed to perfection and the set by Devlin was handsome and sleek. The problem of course is why would anyone think moving the action to the 1850s was a good idea. This looks more like a bourgeois gathering at the Cafe Royal than the desperate inhabitants of Troy under a ten-year siege. Why the mechanistic look dripping with rusty metal? Why the by the meter long flowing dresses and lace and trims everywhere one looks? Making Anna Caterina Antonacci look like the mad woman on the scrapheap of twisted metal is such a mindless degradation of the intentions of Berlioz and the gravitas of the persona, making the viewer instantly weary of what’s up next. The arrival of the horse is indeed impressive and its movement as sleek  as we would demand. The vivid image of its fiery presence dominating the floored Cassandre is a wonderful moment of almost cinematic power. Of course one has to wonder why did the horse need to go up in flames? It seems pyrotechnics are the last refuge of desperate directors trying to capture the attention of indifferent audiences…ahem let’s not recall the disastrous Don Giovanni (that has thankfully been scrapped for ever).

Unfortunately his Carthage Acts look so disconnected and romanticised, there is no obvious timeline connection to Troy. The stepped “apartment block made of mud” set attracted applause on the first night I saw it, which made a lot of us present cringe.  More obvious this failing is when Enée and his soldiers walk in, disrupting the entertainment and love in of Didon and her subjects. Eva-Maria Westbroek is dressed in full on odalisque costume, matt gold dress and a relaxed off white robe, a Bedouin meets Parisian fashion look in total contrast to the 1850s military uniform of the Troyans. Their appearance makes both Didon and her setting look even more shabby.  She also sits on a model of the town which later on becomes airborne in the manner more appropriate to Star Wars: A New Hope than a Berlioz opera. If McVicar wanted to say anything through the set costumes and the truly dreadful dancing is beyond me. The programme may dismissively informing us that audiences can’t accept men in skirts any more but somehow ignores that a more classical approach serves the material better, but of course is less of an ego boost for the director.

This production managed to go through the motions professionally and kept stage interest active but lost on the way to crowd pleasing the dramatic core of Berlioz’s complicated and multifaceted epic. It is a tragédie lyrique after all and any flippant choices for relocation of the action to another time period take a toll on the effective staging of the work. The current cult of the director being imposed on a tricky work like Les Troyens creates a hollow construct that does much of the sublime music and singing no justice. A particularly ridiculous example was Ed Lyon being pulled up in the flytower like a housewife would collect her washing in Napoli…dragged up on a rope, after singing a most sublime aria of longing. Why not go for a more conventional rope ladder to come down from the mast? It was just complication for the sake of complication with no apparent thinking behind it.

Had the chance to see it twice and the most diametrically opposite parts of the auditorium, a third row Orchestra Stalls seat at a cost of £183 and an Upper Slips bench seat for £15. The experience was thoroughly illuminating and very, very different. At Stalls one can be tantalizingly close to the singers and orchestra but the sound can suffer at times, while at the extremities of the gods the sound is surprisingly warm and immediate but a pair of binoculars comes handy!

The cast was uneven but with some great rewards to be had.

Eva-Maria Westbroek was a resplendent Didon, solemn sexuality paired with self-confidence, sense of purpose and demure deportment. Her singing started a big unsteady on the 5th but grew in confidence and dramatic power through the evening. Her final aria was truly fantastic, her Ah! Je vais mourir was so committed and forceful creating a compulsive atmosphere of empathy for the character. She sang the middle part of it straight at me, it was one of those unforgettable moments looking eye to eye with such a wonderful performer while she is on the final strait of the tragic trajectory of this most demanding role. The only constraint through the performance was the fairly stiff direction of McVicar who had her sitting a lot on top of toytown Carthage and on random cushions, creating a look of a dull odalisque in the Ingres mould. Westbroek is a physical performer that thrives in being able to engage more with the set and colleagues. So it was a relief to have her final scene played out against an off-black curtain instead of the set, thus liberated and being able to focus on the drama.

Brian Hymel may have lacked the stage charisma and the variety of colouring in his voice to be an ideal Enée but he surely made up in enthusiasm and eagerness to please with his technically accomplished and very well projected voice. On the two performances you could see him growing in confidence and the chemistry between him and Westbroek was there. Especially during the dire dancing in Act Four where she was getting very friendly with Aenee on a large pile of floor cushions (sounds downright dirty but wasn’t really). His stronger showing was during Act Five where he sang with great propulsion if not Gallic flair. He surely offered an impressive C at the conclusion of his Inutiles regrets which made for an exciting addition to the night.

The stand out performance of both evenings was Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Cassandre, she was both stylistically appropriate with an intense stage presence and a vivid embodiment of the character. Also the only cast member that looked totally independent of the particular holds of this production, almost a mini production inside McVicar’s simplistic mush. Her very entrance on both nights sent shivers down my spine. Her total conviction and stylised acting may looked out of date to many, but had that been replaced with what nowadays? She deeply felt the drama and relayed it in her great dark voice and charismatic presence, isn’t that what opera is all about? She brought a touch of the golden age to this production that was worth the price of admission alone, she was exceptional in all her perturbed glory and archetypal painted eyes in her palms. Cassandre has some of the most individualistic music in Troyens and Antonacci managed to not just fulfill the requirements but to go far and beyond and make us all drank with her charisma and dramatic personification of a vibrant figure from Greek mythology. Her two big arias in Act One were such intense theatre and her attention to every word gave depth and stripped back all the clutter and junk this production acquired courtesy of director and set designer. A triumph by a great singer/actress.

Unfortunately she had to duet with Fabio Capitanucci, who just belted out his part clearly not being told this was Berlioz he was singing and not some verismo shocker. I am afraid his gifts were wasted on a bad fit with the material.

Brintley Sherratt offered a vocally solid Narbal with impeccable taste and good sense for the rest of the ensemble.

Hanna Hipp one of the young artists of the Royal Opera was a wonderful sister to Westbroek’s Didon, sang with power and conviction, one can imagine what a great experience it must have been partnering one of the greatest singers of our times. Looking forward in seeing her in the revived Otello in a week’s time.

Ji-min Park as Iopas was a lovely light presence in the middle of the Carthaginian section, he sang his song of the fields with laser like projection, if a bit too sharp on the first night I saw him.

Ed Lyon sang Hylas’ aria that kicks off Act Five with such great beauty, gleam, wistfulness and melancholy. He surely made a big impression on both nights adding a much needed and thoroughly enjoyable punctuation to a long evening at the opera. He did caress the words with such flair and understanding for the style that won us over near instantly.

The chorus of the Royal Opera was in good form on both nights and worked exemplary well with the soloists and orchestra, which played with verve on both nights, despite the too quick tempi adopted by Pappano for the first two Acts. On the last night the balance between speed and dramatic development was much more settled and particularly the hunt and storm scenes at the beginning of Act Four seemed much speedier and alive.

The performance of the Thurs 5 July was relayed live and available to view on demand for the coming months at The Space, they also recorded the performances on 1st and 8th of July, so expect a full blown Blu-Ray and DVD release come 2013 with all the best bits of the three nights spliced together. Lets hope some of the silly extravagances indulged in this outing will be more subdued/rethought for the upcoming presentations in Vienna, Milan and San Francisco before it returns to the stage at Covent Garden in the future.

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