Tag Archives: Georges Bizet

Sing-along Bizet / Pop-up Opera / Le Docteur Miracle / Drink, Shop & Do – 10 March 2014

11 Mar

Pop-up Opera Dr MiracleI may not be the world’s biggest fan of small scale/fringe opera efforts. But last night’s performance of Bizet’s Le Docteur Miracle largely changed my mind by offering an appropriate work in the appropriate setting. Bizet’s youthful effort was after all written for a competition organised by Jacques Offenbach and is both suitable frothy and requires a small cast of singers.  Here we didn’t feel like we are missing out on the great orchestral colours of mature Puccini and Verdi but more like discovering repertoire rarely performed and in a format that would make it an entertaining introduction to the world of opera. 

The theme of food runs through the plot of the work and here was given a Masterchef twist, while adding segments of Carmen to the mix (apologies for the obviously awful pun). The projections accompanying particularly the omelette quartet were hilarious with quotes sourced from the TV programme and topical news references. Audience participation was not too taxing even if some got kissed and cuddled by the daughter of the family (Laurette) most of the time we contributed ingredients to the egg mix, clapped along, sang a bit of Carmen karaoke or even played hang man with the dramatically bearded Dr Miracle. It was all good fun and didn’t try too hard to be a tedious animateur routine. 

The performances by the four singers were suitably bubbly and fun. The childish enthusiasm of Aurélia Jonvaux was the driving force for most of the plot alongside the comical reinventions of Robert Lomax who metamorphosed in Dr Miracle after having spent the previous two hours in a chef’s outfit and stripped down to his boxer shorts and t-shirt.  The impressive presence of both Sarah Champion and Benjamin Seifert helped create the contrast for the slapstick of the younger characters to flourish. Like any other shoestring opera production special mention for the long suffering pianist, Elizabeth Challenger who played with spark and ebullience.

If you fancy a good belly laugh and like your opera silly it is worth catching up with this mobile opera company. Find more about their tour here: http://popupopera.co.uk/whats-on I can imagine even the grump of the family will have a little smile at the end of the show.

Pop-up Opera Dr Miracle List

A few tweets from the evening 

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

Rosenblatt Recital, Artur Ruciński + James Vaughan / St John Smith’s Square – 18 January 2012

20 Jan

Usually when I attend a recital I tend to be immensely amused and charmed when singers add to their programmes songs in their native language. This recital will be the exception, both the accompanist and Ruciński seemed too ill at ease with the four sonnets. I would guess lack of enough rehearsal time was to blame. Sight reading the lines in Polish from the score throughout was a pointer to that. Thank heavens they tweaked the running order and the interval came after the aria from Faust, otherwise I am not sure I would be too willing to return after the interval.

His two arias from I Puritani and Don Pasquale were great vehicles to display his limpid tone and fearless delivery. His passion and sadness as Sir Riccardo was palpable and his first fortissimo passage did make a few members of the audience shudder, he can be very loud if the piece allows, which was very effective with the too neutral and dry acoustic of the space. His Dr Malatesta was good fun but somehow I felt a gap between an attempt at interpretation and his clear intention to please the all (too approving) audience. He was surely a buffo baritone but somehow the character as envisaged by Donizetti was missing.

His Valentin was not a good fit for his voice type, his French delivery was not as unforced as his flowing Italian and maybe the voice is a tad too strident and steely for this repertoire.  The interval came and I was thinking of the strength of his voice and the powerful delivery and the lightness of touch in bel canto.

His Count Almaviva was surely acted and he wasn’t just playing to the audience. Clearly a result of his stage experience in the role. It may sound harsh, but despite the limitations of the concert platform, interpretation is possible if not more needed than when in a fully staged performance. His Count a thinking, living character, the last ringing Il colpo e fatto was  a great signifier his arrogance and moved on to a climatic signature Mozartian expression of rage. Up to that point that was the most natural bit of singing of the night.

The two Tchaikovsky arias were a very good fit for his voice, the tautness of the sound was fresh and the Russian sounded involved and a proper romantic opera interpretation. At times his Onegin sounded on the sharp side but the overall atmosphere and confidence were winning. Unfortunately the accompaniment maybe was not up to his standard, with a tentative touch Vaughan did not sound fluent enough.

The final programmed aria was for me the best piece of the evening, for the first time his projection was full bloodied and from the mask, the voice lost any steely edge it had up to that point and delivered a wonderful rendition of Rodrigo’s death aria with passion and more empathy than displayed earlier in this recital. A total joy to listen to, the phrasing was elegant and attuned to what a grand opera by Verdi requires. The loud cheers were truly deserved.

His encores were Di Provenza il mar from La Traviata and Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre from Carmen were a good way to close the recital. Despite my misgivings at asking the audience to clap for the toreador aria and throwing the rose he was given straight to a woman on my row! But it was a bit of fun on a Wednesday evening and hope he returns to London for maybe some fully staged Verdi in the very near future.

On the whole this was a great introduction of the singer to a London audience, as always with this recital series you never know where the singers will be in the next five years. Judging on the stars they gave the stage to, early on in their careers, it’s a great place to see the stars of tomorrow.

Some tweets from the evening

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