Tag Archives: Elena Xanthoudakis

One week, two Flutes, two productions, two cities / The Magic Flute / English National Opera + Scottish Opera / 15 + 21 October 2012

3 Nov

Oh how funny the repertoire planning of opera houses can be…you wait for one Magic Flute  and two show up concurrently. With a third one to be added early 2013 by the Royal Opera.

Had the chance to watch two very different productions of The Magic Flute in one week. The 1986 effort by Nicholas Hytner for English National Opera, a breakthrough and much revived production and the brand new production by Thomas Allen for Scottish Opera. In many ways they both had a traditional outlook but it was fascinating seeing the ways two directors resolved the same problems.

Hytner’s production was justifiably famous and much loved. This was the final run of performance before retiring it. The white semi circular set opening to more colourful stage pictures still looks modern and verging on a historicising minimalism. His witty touches such as the coup de theatre when Papagena appears in a bird nest being lowered to the stage was a ingenious mix of imagination and pertinent visual humour. The appearance of Papageno complete with trained doves that come from backstage and land on his cage every time he uses his pipe is an enchanting piece of stagecraft that is simple as it is effective.

After all the Magic Flute is a magical singspiel that has more than a passing reference to the child in all of us and most notably Mozart himself. Its pretty ridiculous story trajectory can only convince as the story telling of a grown up child being mystified by what the proper adults are up to. The secret society behind Sarastro becomes unexplained and hazy with most of the storytelling effort put into the primary characters and their quest for love. The sparse white set becomes the confusing world Tamino explores with a sense of wonder and trepidation. The lack of stage clutter afforded the singers the time to establish a relationship with the audience.
Hytner’s take is very formal, his Flute has no camp jollity but in this last revival it had space for the brilliantly zany Papageno of Duncan Rock, a handsome über-Australian interpretation with idiomatic banter and a spontaneous sense of fun. His Papagena was also a very geographically specific creature. Rhian Lois was a totally camp Welsh caricature appearing as a hunchbacked tea lady pushing a trolley. This in keeping with the singers’ specific attributes took the 18th century inspired costumes to a different place, bringing the narrative stagecraft in touch with reality but not a current, stand up comedy sensibility. Rock calling the last two doves to enter the cage Kylie and Jason was hilarious and played on his on-stage persona. The Masonic scenes where staged in front of a gilded full height hieroglyph punched screen with Sarastro and his circle in white robes, again adorned with hieroglyphs. The break in the action was decisive and clear cut. Also the creation of the bedroom where Pamina is kept captive was set up with an impressive length of red fabric being released and draped on a mattress in the middle of the stage. A graphic, bold look that was very memorable. This revival had the good fortune to have Elena Xanthoudakis in great form, singing her heart out and acting with total conviction. The second act was a tour de force and it was very difficult to take our eyes off her.

Tom Allen’s take was on a more Bacchanalian scale. His set and characters are more the ones of a variety show than an opera and in many ways all the better for it. Plucking a deferential Nicky Spence from a side of the stage box and thrown to the stage complete with a libretto was a good laugh out idea. But it also saddled our leading man with a gormless naivete for the length of the performance. His direction was miles away from Hytner’s respectful and much more cool-headed approach.
The production has a very local feel, Allen mined the steam punk iconography and the bric-a-brac of the Hunterian Museum into a volatile mix of dry ice overload and sexiness. The set was an amalgam of Jules Verne and shiny matt gold automaton. The central aperture at the centre back of the stage configured in different shapes and sizes was the main entry for new characters creating a dramatic focus on the singers. While the sets and costumes are busy the production doesn’t feel cluttered. It is essentially a production by a singer for the singers. Some visual touches that make it memorable has to be the three boys that seem to float at the back of the stage with their propeller parasols adding a picture book panache.

To call the overall look 19th century industrial pornography would be very accurate and in most aspects it works. The only major failing was how Sarastro was presented (in trendy fitted coat with flashes of black leather) his religious/masonic function totally eradicated as he presides over this industrial music hall, as the curtain adornment betrays (a proscenium like add on to the curtain with lights and ‘the secret of life’ and ‘Sarastro’ scribbled on it. But overall the clever characterisation and the hilarious dialogue made up for any directorial shortcomings. Our Papageno, Richard Burkhard, was refreshingly different to the suave and luminous Rock. He played it for laughs…hilariously when imploring for a girlfriend he refers in desperation suggesting that a boy would rather have him instead. We didn’t get the Great British Bake Off (as on the opening couple of performances) joke this time but just a reference to Mr Kipling’s cakes. As it tours around Scotland I can only imagine how much fun he will have with the topical references.
Nicky Spence sang with great assurance for most of the night and looked surely the part in the beautiful costumes by Simon Higlett, like the rest of the cast. His recent Novice for the new ENO Billy Dudd was costumed so abysmally everyone on stage apart from the high ranking seamen looked like they wore potato sacks. The costumes for the Queen of the Night and the Three Ladies were a particular highlight, all fibre optic lighting and glitter. Morriya’s singing was spectacular, with beautiful runs and pin point coloratura it was a shame that her Pamina was a rather pale creature in the hands of Laura Mitchell but the humorous banter and  innuendo ridden sexiness of the Ladies made up for any characterisation shortcomings.

On the orchestral side of things, ENO’s orchestra had a much more idiomatic, sweetly chromatic sound under the baton of Nicholas Collon who gave a solid and dreamy reading. Reflecting largely the more romantic staging. While the Scottish Opera Orchestra sounded much better than the last time I heard them live. But there was a bit too much steam and not enough dream in the heavily propelled reading by Ekhart Wycik. But then it is worth noting that Scottish Opera is the only major UK company to not have any artistic staff on its permanent roster, on the aftermath of a well publicised financial fall out. The orchestra has just been declared a co-operative which hopefully will help them settle into a more stable pattern of working and achieve a more unified sound. But overall the singers seemed very well drilled and the chorus offered some memorable singing.

Overall this Scottish Opera Flute has the stamp of a very happy production, with a particular Scottish slant. Comparing these two memorable productions, it seems the new one is ideal for our times. It is faster, meaner, funnier and definitely a great night out. If you live in Scotland or if you plan a holiday north of the borders this one is worth catching and I can imagine it would be a great introduction to opera neophytes. 

The exquisite Eglise and a sleeping duck of a Sonnambula / La Sonnambula / Royal Opera House – 7 November 2011

10 Nov

Three days later and I’m still conflicted over this production of La Sonnambula. Bel Canto is my biggest operatic passion and this production seriously let down both the cast and the composer.

This rewarmed up production from 2002 may look sleek and appropriately art deco, but it really does not serve the story of the opera or the singers well. The action is stolid and some of the silly antics (cake trolley comes to mind and smoking by Lisa) have no connection to the narrative line of the piece and just create distraction. Removing the story from a simple village setting to a mountain top sanatorium (which looks like the foyer of an art deco cinema) was a pretty stupid idea even back in 2002. It deprives the work of it’s naivete and is trying to shoehorn the action into an one set affair, disregarding the needs of the action. Elvino doesn’t have a bedroom and Amina has to slalom down a snowed on table like a show dog at Crufts. My heart went out to the singers that had to push through all this unnecessary baggage and shine through.

I went not expecting very much of Albelo, after reading complaints from other bloggers of the first two performances. On the third he seemed to be a good match for Gutiérrez, they both possess dark timbred instruments with a warm tone. Unfortunately for him though, he seemed to be pushing quite hard to hit his higher notes. The obvious comparison would be with Florez, who in contrast may have all the high notes and secure technique but he is lacking on the human warmth that brings Elvino to life.  In many levels he was satisfactory, especially in the duets with Amina but most of his arias were marred by his discomfort with the material, at times making us think he was auditioning for a Puccini opera. We needed a romantic hero with seamless legato and effortless production, we surely got shortchanged.

The role of Lisa is not so central to the action and this dreadful production has made it more slapstick than ever. Xanthoudakis sang with brio and charisma but somehow had a rather sharp delivery that was slightly out of sorts with bel canto.

Elizabeth Sikora, was a beautifully acted Teresa full of empathy but also unshaken trust for her daughter. She sang with security and open tone, one of the joys of the evening.

Michele Pertusi’s Count Rodolfo was seen by many reviewers as excellent, on the night he seemed over reliant on his cheeky part and not too married to the vocal requirements. His singing was smooth and well projected but somehow did not hit the mark as a complete character. But again I’d blame more the dreadful production than the singer.

Amina is a huge challenge for any coloratura soprano and there are very few that fulfill the requirements and can answer Bellini’s demands with aplomb. Eglise Gutiérrez is an extraordinary singer, she posses frightful coloratura technique and yet has a lower placed voice with powerful chest notes. It’s quite removed from the traditional nightingale sound with it’s airy delivery and stratospheric agility. The director did not make it easy for her, with fussy detailing and some very strange choices, he made her stagework much more difficult. Her opening Care Compagne was full of sweetness and affection. She continued with a definite cheekiness that was trying to imbue this lifeless production with some spunk. The rest of her first Act was beautifully sang and well ornamented. I cannot think of a single note she had to overtly aspirate or smudge her way to a D or an E. My only criticism would be that in that act she seemed to have gone for a more cautious approach. Her volume was quite low and seemed as if she was preserving her powers for the more difficult second act.

The clincher with any Sonnambula performance is her Ah! Non credea mirarti in the final scene of the second act. She delivered in spades. It was beautiful but also meaningful, that was as close as I have come to crying during an opera this year. Her flowing legato and solid vocal line was a marvel, alongside the placement of her high register. When it’s broadcast on Radio 3 listen in and see if you don’t feel a lump at the back of your throat. It was sensational! Bizarrely after this famously challenging aria and a tough cabaletta to follow the director asked for a dress change in a red velvet number beloved of Violettas the world over. The curtain came down and Amina walked on the proscenium to sing her Ah! Non Giunge uman pensiero and then the curtains opened and she walked on the table to conclude the evening with some truly extraordinary ornaments and topping it with a ceiling scrapping high F! I can’t imagine a single singer right now being able to pull it off in such fashion.

A special mention has to be made to the performance of the orchestra which was ropey at best, verging on to disastrous at times. Were they under rehearsed or was it all the fault of Daniel Oren and his singer unfriendly conducting? He seemed to spare little thought for Bellini’s actual tempi and to how the singers had to breathe to deliver their demanding coloratura. He lacked the finesse and the attention to detail a bel canto score demands. The first act felt like it was dragging on for at least two hours. At least in the second act things got slightly more brisk and the singers were better supported. It does not make sense inviting a hot rising star like Gutiérrez to front this singer’s opera only to let them down by shoddy direction, irrelevant sets and terrible conducting.

I will agree with Joyce DiDonato that ‘the world is lucky she is here’* and hope in the future the Royal Opera will offer Gutiérrez more roles that fit her extraordinary capabilities with new fresh productions that serve the music, singers and make Covent Garden look like a professional institution that takes its mission seriously. Bel canto needs dedication and the highest artistry, this production deserves to be binned soon after the last performance of the current run. How about a Semiramide Kasper?

The broadcast on Radio 3 is on 19 November at 6pm, tune in!

Tweets from the evening:

http://twitter.com/#!/OperaCreep/status/133626766177746945

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http://twitter.com/#!/JoyceDiDonato/status/133902737757831168

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