Tag Archives: Carmen

Glorious mess / Carmen / Royal Opera House – 6 January 2014

8 Jan

ROH CarmenLet’s get out of the way that I fervently dislike Francesca Zambello’s Carmen for the Royal Opera, it is the usual large opera house production, all baked terracotta walls, running water and pointless appearances by animals. It has not aged very well and the obvious lack of dramatic heft in the production is either made up by excellent casts that add their own personality to it or it just ponders on as a bunch of badly reproduced postcards of Goya portraits and tonnes of oversized Seville oranges (complete with orange tree, of course). The brusqueness of her use of the chorus and the unnecessary amount of stage noise touches on the vulgar. Particularly in the prelude before the opening of Act Two, the heavy stomping (as we know, clumsy stomping translates as passion) drowned out any delicacy left of Bizet’s luminous composition.

The leading couple of Anna Caterina Antonacci and Roberto Alagna must have so many hundreds of performances under their belts making one suspicious to get a prescriptive and superficial interpretation . But on the night the chemistry between the two of them was undeniable, Antonacci looked at him, charmed, arrogant, full of pity and fearless. He looked back with devotion and charm, with a certain vulnerability and intensity that was the perfect answer to Antonacci’s deeply felt and committed performance. Every one of her recitatives had meaning, every word was enunciated with exemplary clarity and style. The most telling was her warm delivery of the habanera, an all too frequently chance for singers to hoot like cheap prostitutes, she made it a beguiling study in characterisation with just enough suggestion and sex appeal. And of course warmly inflected vocalism that was parlando enough to make every one shut up and listen. A Carmen that did not dominated the stage with crudity and noise, but with suggestion, humour and charisma. All the men on stage are meant to fall instantly in love with her but also did the audience.

Alagna may have sounded sharp at the start but he eased himself into a very generous and well acted partner to the astounding prowess of our leading lady. The finale (despite the ham-fisted direction) was incredibly tense and well acted. Not in the league of Bieito’s incredibly vivid production but a good example of two great performers that can create magic out of directorial crumbs.

Special mention has to go to the supporting cast with Ashley Riches being a playful Moralès and Veronica Cagemi who despite being miscast she made all she could of Micaëla’s challenging aria in Act Three but unfortunately almost run out of steam during her short duet with Don José soon after. Unfortunately the Escamillo of Vito Priante had a total personality bypass, giving a terribly pallid stage impression regardless of the honestly ridiculous entrance on a horse. Judging by the reactions around me everyone paid attention to the horse but not to the singer.

The conducting of Daniel Oren  was so dreadful to make one wonder why is he being repeatedly booked by Covent Garden, if he is not generic he is outright bad. The tempi in the first half were wayward and sluggish, the transitions laboured and all the spark was made into a dull semblance of Iberica.

That Antonacci manages to pull off her arias without any major incidents was down to her trying to speed up proceedings with her singing…surely a dreadful day in the office for any singer if they have to modulate the performance by dragging the conductor to follow them. Her intense gesturing during Les tringles des sistres tintaient looked almost as a desperate attempt for Oren to notice that he had singers on the stage.

The orchestra overall sounded bored and any apparent gleam from the strings had turned into a muddle. To give him a modicum of credit after the interval things sped up a notch and felt less embarrassing to be hearing their output. But one has to wonder why the management of the ROH will go and book two well known singers only to give them a hard time with such uninspired and provincial conducting, surely there are many others that could conduct a reliable and fluid version of the score out there.ROH Carmen List

Some tweets from the night

Edgy perfection / Carmen / English National Opera – 19+27 November + 6 December 2012

13 Dec

ENO CarmenAnyone that follows me on Twitter will know my feelings about Calixto Beito’s production of Carmen too well. It is a triumph of modernism over the flouncy overwrought productions of old and also a fresh, visceral theatrical experience.

Attending in two extra occasions it exposed what can go wrong with live performance though…more of that in a minute.

The production has been very well documented with its European and South American versions moving from opera house to opera house since 1999. It seems many companies want Bieito’s touch in a staple of the operatic repertoire that rarely works so well as a complete experience. Bieito’s transfer of the action to the last few months of Franco’s suppression of Spain is a stroke of genius, taking to heart Bizet’s political ideas in Carmen and amplifying them. Far too many productions get too much stuck in the love triangle to care and unnecessary details to care for much else. Bieito’s concept is a holistic treatment of the work, so much so any minor mishaps can be easily forgiven. The very simple conceit of Carmen singing the start of her famous entrance down the phone to an ex lover is clever as it is an instant atmosphere generator. His Carmen seems more sophisticated and cool headed than most and to a huge benefit in believability.

Ruxandra Donose gave a wonderfully committed and subtle performance never edging on smuttiness but giving an intelligent and forthright person on stage. Her vocal performance may not have been the loudest in the world but sang with the necessary glamour and style. Her darker timbre adding weight and an edge of fatalism. Unfortunately both our Jose and Escamillo were miscast but performed admirably well in context of that.

Adam Diegel surely looked rather butch and easy on the eye when he was taking his shirt off but somehow the middle of his voice was not as strong as his abs. At times he was lacking the spark and seemed fatigued by the softer passages. His chemistry with Donose and Llewellyn was undeniable and the production overall carried him through. He was extremely effective in the chilling finale and added his manly fragility to this beautifully choreographed exchange of passion, pity and defiance.

Leigh Melrose was again gorgeous in costume but somehow lacked the vocal bloom and the on stage arrogance to make his character truly resonate. But that is more the fault again of the casting and not his. In all three performances I watched he was clearly giving all he had, it just seemed to be short of what Bizet and Bieito demanded.

But what can I say about Elizabeth Llewellyn that hasn’t been said many times before? She was getting better and better through the run, her much more assertive than usual Michaela seemed a tiny bit tentative at dress rehearsal but had bloomed into a ballsy, strong-minded woman by the second performance  that concentrated the glances of the whole auditorium on her. Her appearance in the training camp setting of Act One added a dose of female sexuality in Bieito’s intensely manly world. Many a singer could have been swallowed by the garish sequinned blouse but Llewellyn made it vibrate with personality and her velvety tone offered depth and purpose to every appearance.
The direction allowed her to steal the limelight in crucial junctures in the story telling, such as in Act Three where she is left alone on stage, bar for a battered old Mercedes car and a crucifix she carries with her. And yet her charisma lit up the stage with pathos and gorgeousness. Just think how many forgettable Michaelas you have listened and watched in the past, this was not one of them. Her bras d’honneur at the  floor bound Carmen at the end of Act Three was a great touch that made everyone in the audience chuckle (at dress rehearsal the students at the Upper Circle made their allegiance with Michaela all too clear) and instantly side with the good girl of the story.

From the smaller supporting roles, Duncan Rock’s narcissistic Morales was a great addition to Act One that provided a focus and some strong singing. The glorious card scene in Act Three was lit up by the Frasquita of Rhian Lois and the Mercedes of Madeleine Shaw, giving an over the top performance with a rather tart edge that made a great counterfoil to Donose’s much darker, more composed character.

The chorus were tremendous once more,  investing their performance all three times with vibrancy and the boorishness that Bieito demanded in Act Four where they jumped and screamed like a real audience to a bull fight, facing the audience and only separated with a tensed rope from the orchestra pit. And then dramatically parting to reveal Escamillo in his bright yellow toreador outfit. Especially when one puts into account they were alternating their Carmen performances with the chorus heavy The Pilgrim’s Progress it is even more impressive how they managed to retain the level of vibrancy required by the direction.

The orchestra was a sad shadow of its usual self on the 27 November performance when Martin Fitzpatrick was conducting. And it seems it was not even his fault, as on the night there were a large number of substitutions in the pit, making the sound sounding unbalanced and at times too predictable.
On the other hand the other two performances under Ryan Wigglesworth were wonderfully paced readings of the score with an innate sense of structure and avoiding the clichés that most conductors seems to impose on this overall lyrical and gripping score. He did not force the dynamics and over-emphasise the “ethnographic” content but instead opted for a singer friendly pace that allowed the story to be engaging and at the same time allowing some much needed pauses. Proving ENO’s  investment in him truly worthwhile (he is the composer in residence) and a vindication of this young and fast rising talent that he will make his conducting début with the Royal Opera, replacing Antonio Pappano at Covent Garden by conducting the upcoming revival of Birtwistle’s Minotaur.

I could spend another 1000 words describing this truly wonderful staging by Bieito but what you can do is go and get the DVD/Blu Ray and see for yourselves. It is a production that deserves the cult status it has acquired over the years and hope that it will be revived by ENO very soon. At least I’ll allow myself the mention of how great the lighting design was by Bruno Poet, being both naturalistic and reactive to the on stage action.
As for all the people I know that were put off by the fact it was staged in an English translation at the Coliseum. They sadly missed a great production with two extraordinary ladies on stage and a wonderful orchestra and chorus. Looking forward to the day that superiority complex of the usual Covent Garden offenders will allow them to go to ENO and enjoy it for what it is…London’s second and mainly much edgier opera house.

ENO Carmen list

Production shots by ENO

Related Podcasts

Edward Seckerson interviewing Calixto Bieito.

Christopher Cook was in conversation with Ryan Wigglesworth.

Curtain call video

[youtube http://youtu.be/_3DSBJ56T6I]

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

Roland Petit triple bill / L’Arlésienne + Le Jeune Homme et la Mort + Carmen / English National Ballet – 23 July 2011

29 Jul


Programme

L’Arlésienne (1974)

Vivette – Erina Takahashi / Frédéri – Esteban Berlanga

Le Jeune Homme et la Mort (1946)

The Young Man – Yonah Acosta / Death – Anaïs Chalendard

Carmen (1949)

Carmen – Begoña Cao / Don José – Fabian Reimair

It was a truly enjoyable evening and it provided a very interesting contrast to the Sylvie Guillem extravaganza a couple of weeks ago. And it also became a worthy tribute to Petit himself who only died days earlier.

This was my first live experience of Petit’s work  and I can say I am a convert. His lightness and his interest in theatricality and may I say, camp is truly unique. In comparison to the two British giants that dominate ballet culture in the UK (Ashton and MacMillan) his voice is distinctive and much more joyous.

The triple bill presented by the English National Ballet was an interesting mix of moods but with a strand of doomed men running through the evening.  His language is a mix of classical ballet with touches of mime and jazz improvisation. The resulting amalgam is a very light-hearted but ultimately very satisfying product. The standout feature of his language in both Carmen and L’Arlésienne is an elevated position for the corps. Many choreographers treat the corps as an inconvenience or as just a homogeneous crowd, Petit uses it as an important protagonist that propels the narrative. In contrast Le Jeune Homme is a character study with much more insight and endowed with two great young stars as the main protagonists: Yonah Acosta and Anaïs Chalendard. Acosta brought an exuberant and moody character to life, making even the regular abuse of the chairs on stage seem natural and part of his frustration. Chalendard was an electrifying presence, a very powerful evocation of the character of death with angular limbs and a face full of determination. Petit uses smoking as an element of glamorous presence (like in Carmen), a very Gallic attribute, to animate further the exchange between the two dancers. The campness of the set and costumes, with the big reveal of a panoramic moonlit view of Parisian rooftops was the stuff of cinematic treats by Baz Luhrmann and Pedro Almodóvar. Unexpected, slightly kitsch, surely eye catching. A true coup de theatre!

The evening got started in a much more muted way. L’Arlésienne based on Bizet’s music was an interesting group drama with the couple getting married (Vivette and Frédéri) and ably portrayed by Erina Takahashi and Esteban Berlanga. Takahashi showed natural sweetness and beautiful control. The whole story is mainly relying on the doomed male and unfortunately Berlanga, despite his gorgeous looks didn’t manage to extract all the emotion out of the choreography and seemed to be thinking too much and not letting himself fly. The excellent dancing by the corps created a wonderful backdrop standing out against a big painted Van Gogh inspired cloth. The final dramatic jump out of the window for the hero is another camp touch which brings a much wanted climax to a gentle, on the whole, creation.

Carmen was the concluding part of the evening with an overload on pedestrian ethnographic touches that look dated (a large group of fans used as wall decorations in Carmen’s bedroom?) and some strange vocal participation by the dancers who sang the Habanera like in a French class for the under fives, gave the piece a look of a 1950s quaint seaside postcard. But the most interesting decision by Petit came with the imaginative reuse and rearrangement Bizet’s extremely familiar material. In my view a touch of genius, as a bit of gender reversal (e.g. the Habanera is danced by Don Jose) and fight against expectation is the way to go to avoid an experience on autopilot. The sexyness of the choreography caused a stir in 1949 but today is more of an essay on movement inspired by operatic material and re-shapen to serve a new form. Cao gave us a coquettish Carmen but maybe not with enough fire in her gut. The concluding confrontation outside the bullfighting arena is stripped of its Bizet music but is set to an almost tribal, loud drum beat. Making the action pop and accentuating the animalism of the scene. Just stunning!

This evening would have made a wonderful introduction for anyone to the beauty and expressive possibilities of ballet. A truly entertaining and satisfying evening out that showed ENB in great shape and exploring rarely seen in the UK repertoire.

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