Tag Archives: Covent Garden

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

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Tudorama / Gloriana / Royal Opera House – 20 June 2013

29 Jun

GlorianaIf Britten’s posthumous reputation was judged solely on Gloriana, history would have been much harsher on him.

Richard Jones turned out another hilarious evocation of a school gym/church hall where Gloriana takes place as a Tudor play. This device clearly makes a tongue in cheek commentary on the advance of the “second Elizabethan age” with the coronation of ERII and Britten’s commission tied up to a royal gala. Ingeniously his proscenium is raised and in front of the stage a nervous mayor , officials and the technical staff of the church hall are waiting for the arrival of the young Queen Elizabeth II who duly shows up at both start and end of the show.

The sets and props by Ultz are beautifully conceptualised and executed within the framework of an amateur dramatics performance. Highlights include the hilarious Tudor huts on wheels representing the medieval City of London. In the Norwich section the big display of vegetables spelling out ER is hilarious as it is quintessentially English (something about marrows and giant veg in the countryside). And of course of all the oversized furniture, King Edward’s Chair on wheels  and Elizabeth’s wreath topped dressing table should have their own postcode.
As usual with Jones consistency is underpinning everything, the bystanders on the side of the stage within a stage are looking bored stiff, a surly looking school mistress type giving joylessly cues, foley artists playing the lute for Essex’s two songs and also toll the bell for town crier.
Unfortunately the masque is terminally dull and marks a major sag in the flow of the evening. The choreography and the music are not of a very high standard (just think that John Cranko choreographed the première) also the strange decision by the Opera House to not allow an interval between Act One and Two making the audience sit through over 100 minutes tested our patience and the end of Act Two couldn’t come quickly enough.
Act Three contains Britten’s most accomplished dramatically music, with gorgeous writing for the strings and a much more elegiac attitude. The confrontation scene between her and Essex as well as the lonely finale has more than a passing resemblance to Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. The writing as it becomes more introspective it also gains dramatic weight making for a very strong second half.
One niggle with Jones’ direction would be that he denied the work the sombre conclusion Britten clearly wanted, by adding the reappearance of the royal party and a little girl to give them flowers. An odd choice since even the programme mentions repeatedly how Britten steered his librettist to this dark and sadness filled finale underlining the fragile mental state of the queen in the prospect of her own mortality. Was he maybe intending us to read it as a reference to our current queen facing the same dilemma as Elizabeth I?

The question of how to stage a Tudor themed opera remains, Jones makes a great case for a more comedic approach but it seems to also rob the work of its solemnity. But the sleekness and imagination are admirable and the execution is beyond reproach.

Amanda Roocroft sang the part in Hamburg and can imagine was a more compelling actress on stage than Susan Bullock. Who was very dramatically involved but any high-lying passages exposed the vocal problems she has with a broad vibrato that detracted from the otherwise very sharp delivery. Her pivotal prayer in Act One was suffused with great beauty, sculpting carefully phrases, but sometimes let down by her upper register. Overall it was more of an acting triumph and a less riveting vocal performance. The tessitura is fairly low for the role but when she verged high it seemed like a struggle on opening night. There have been reports that her production has been more even in subsequent shows which is good to know.

The welcome return of Toby Spence on the Royal Opera House stage was an unqualified success after his recent treatment for thyroid cancer. His Essex was a fully formed human being with flashes of brilliance thought the evening. His two lute songs were as lyrical as they were beautifully projected and loaded with meaning. He also danced away in the ball scene with endearing ebullience.
Patricia Bardon gave such a spirited performance and her smooth comforting contralto sound was so luxurious to almost verge on the obscene. Her plea to the Queen to save Essex from execution was intense and gorgeous, her horror at seeing the Queen wearing her dress suffused with the crushed anguish of a coquette.

Kate Royal unfortunately was underpowered with a voice I have always found fairly colourless and verging on the generic. It was a cruel casting decision as she had no chance opposite Bardon. Looking pretty in a dress in not what makes an opera singer.

Brindley Sherrat was a fantastic bard managing to be intense and in as great a voice as his Creon for ENO’s Medea. Now when will the RO cast him in big roles…sick of seeing him sidetracked for dubious imports. He is the whole package and deserves to be recognised more.

Ben Bevan gave a wonderful debut performance and thus another member of the very talented Bevan opera clan has adorned Covent Garden’s stage.

The chorus and the orchestra made a passionate contribution and made as good a case for Gloriana as a musical and choral work of substance. Paul Daniel conducted the last revival for Opera North so was a very safe pair of hands and did a splendid job with good pacing and a clear sense of dramatic progression.

In the libretto Essex calls Elizabeth ‘Queen of my life’ a few times…I wonder if it was a little gay household colloquialism that crept in as a naughty addition. I couldn’t stop thinking that Britten and Pears would have been hilarious calling each other Queen on my life at home…but that’s just me and my rampant and unfounded ideas. In any case, this was a very entertaining evening despite any shortcomings that could be easily attributed to Britten being on auto pilot rushing to complete the work for its 1953 première. It was definitely worth reviving for a new generation.

A few tweets from the evening

Curtain call video

Production shots on the ROH Flickr

Gloriana list

Scotland 0 – Rossini 1 / La Donna Del Lago / Royal Opera House – 27 May 2013

2 Jun

ROH DonnaLa Donna Del Lago is the opera that comes round every couple of decades when a performer can command its staging. In the 1980s it was June Anderson who sang the role and now Joyce Didonato has been the compelling Elena of our times that has managed to sing the part since 2010 in Geneva, Paris, Milan and now good ol’ Covent Garden. This was meant to be a co-production with La Scala and the Opéra but as the artistic director of the Royal Opera deemed it a disaster area and commissioned a new production (with a limited budget) by John Fulljames. The awful chain mail costumes that weighed down the singers may have gone, but what replaced them?

Fulljames took the second default setting of a contemporary opera director, after the 1950s…to set the piece in the era it was written. Not too silly a suggestion trying to take away any medievalism left in the work and make it look more polished. The set resembling a gentlemens club covered in wood panelling and complete with four small balconies on the sides for the onstage band to play from. The lady of the lake becomes an object of posh scientific fascination as Edinburgh’s high society (the chorus) dressed in tails and top hats peruse her in a glass case accompanied by cases containing a model boat and another one with the regalia of Scotland. And then the naffest thing happens since the invention of time travelling productions…Walter Scott and Rossini show up on stage and remain on for the duration.

Repurposing the parts of Albina as Rossini and Serano as Walter Scott did not propel much the story it just seemed to have been his way to demonstrate he really had a solid concept behind the show. The main irritation from having Rosini and Scott on stage was their use as decorative additions in the extremities of the stage pictures adding very little interest and mainly spending the evening opening the panelling centre stage to reveal the revolving staircase that stood in for Elena’s house. And later on, the king’s palace. It is never made clear how the scientific specimen of La Donna gets reanimated, was this some secret knowledge society that had cryogenically preserved her, only to wake her up or were we just seeing a miracle making our leading lady mobile and singing? If you want to propose a thesis about the work’s very nature better work out the transitions in a smoother fashion.

Having a performer of Joyce DiDonato’s calibre treated like the famous singing fish must be immensely frustrating for such a physical actress. Thankfully when she comes out of the dreaded case she inhabited the role with such depth of feeling and ownership it was simply ravishing. The second victim of this production was Daniela Barcellona who was costumed in the frumpiest travesti way possible…ill fitting costume, ugly make up, terrible wig. If we need to be convinced she is a man there are simpler more elegant ways to achieve it. Thankfully a truly spectacular singer like her sang through this crap to deliver round tone, killer chest register and staggering volume alongside her measured acting.

Colin Lee was turned into a ridiculous comic book character complete with silly wig and costumed for a provincial production of Norma. All of his warriors were equally ridiculously costumed to drive home the obvious distinction between the townies and the highlanders, it was simplistic as it was crude. Flórez clearly must be good at saying no to the wig department as he was wearing his own hair and looked all the better for it. Mind you he was not spared a comically oversized crown that wouldn’t look out of place as a stripper’s prop and of course the final appearance as the king with acres of imitated ermine and bright tartan making him look like a cushion ready to match the curtains of the palace. His singing was unfailingly elegant but somehow he was outshone by most of his co-stars, notably Colin Lee who was much louder and much more attractively voiced on the night.

The one moment in the first Act I lost total faith in the direction (aside from the inexplicable reanimation of the cased heroine) was the dreadful rape scene which was a largely pointless addition and made no sense in 2013 where we do not need to see sexual violence portrayed as entertainment especially when the story does not need such diversions. It felt gratuitous and the deafening silence in the auditorium signified that I was not the only one to be appalled by this thoughtless addition. Fulljames deserves the scorn he receives on this aspect as it was utterly indefensible.

The chorus delivered some top class singing with very impressive volume and well drilled choreography. A show like this makes a big asset of the chorus and creates the only ebb and flow in a rather tension-free Rosinian romp. So credit to them and the chorus master for adding excitement and fabulous support to the soloists. The orchestra put in some juicy playing despite the very stop/start conducting for my liking. Mariotti must have ironed out a lot of problems that were reported from earlier in the run but somehow he doesn’t seem to grasp the ideal of a sinuous bel canto line for the singers and the orchestra.

If you read my ramblings from time to time you will know by now how much I enjoy Joyce DiDonato’s singing, She may not have the most colourful, most enchanting instrument on the planet but her deployment of her gift is so generous and exciting it is impossible not to be won over. The way she floated Rossini’s high lying phrases all night with such robust support was the stuff of legends.

Her command of the stage was magisterial and the final 20 minutes possibly amongst the best live singing I have heard in my life so far. From when she utters Tanti Affeti in the most delicious hushed pianissimo to the final felicità she gave an unrivaled lesson on elegant use of legato for expressive means, sheer glamour and utter triumph at the top of the cabaletta. A more exuberant expression of on stage happiness is surely difficult to come by.

This opera may not be even in my top 20 operas but a stunning performance of such virtuosity elevates it to an evening never to be forgotten. Yes everyone, I am as smitten with Joyce as I have ever been and cannot wait to see her repeat this magic on the last show on the 11th of June. The performance of the 27th was streamed live in cinemas so expect it in your Christmas stocking for 2014 in Blu-ray and DVD…it will be worth the wait. An additional joy was that Janet Baker was in the audience and congratulated Joyce after the curtain fell.

Some tweets from the evening

ROH Donna List

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.

Sylvie, that goddess

21 Jun

Sometimes superlatives prop up in so many contexts where they do not truly belong. But one artist that has thrilled and touched me like no other is Sylvie Guillem. When people talk about unimaginable magic they are not being stupidly twee, she has always found a way to give me goosebumps on stage whether she was dancing A Month in the Country, Manon or Eonnagata. An artist of such quality and consummate intelligence is very rare.  Of course there are a lot of amazing dancers out there but Guillem has a beguiling quality that I find particularly enchanting. In essence this is my blogged love letter to one of the most singular personalities of the world of ballet and dance. 

I will never forget seeing her perform from Forsythe’s In the Middle Somewhat Elevated at the Nureyev gala in Covent Garden, her pas des deux with Laurent Hilaire. It was beyond definitions of greatness, a suitable tribute to her mentor and the breathtaking central axis of the evening. From that night on I was in love.

Her upcoming world premieres at Sadler’s Wells which I have anticipated for the last six months will be an early highlight of my July. The stakes are high and she’s collaborating with Mats Ek and William Forsythe, great things are to be expected. I’ll surely write a breathless blog about the experience…while I’ll be booking for the encore performances in September!

For any newbies to Sylvie have a look at the following:

Interview to Judith Mackrell on the occasion of the Nureyev gala at the Royal Opera House in 2003. Which was my initiation to her art.

Interview to Another Magazine on the occasion of 6000 miles away at Sadler’s Wells

The quirky website of the said goddess of dance

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