Tag Archives: Giuseppe Verdi

One for the ladies / Rigoletto / English National Opera – 13 February 2014

15 Feb

ENO RigolettoRigoletto has to be one of Verdi’s most nocturnal and dependent on scene changes operas to have its effect on the audience. The transition from palace to house to garden and Sparafucile’s Inn has been a brief that directors over the years have followed with variable degrees of success. A chance to shift from interior opulence to outdoorsy moodiness and moonlight to oppressive interior. Christopher Alden being his usual interventionist self opts for a one set solution. The characters and action never leave the game room of a gentlemen’s club the air of luxurious leather, panelling brass oil lamps, oriental carpets and parquet flooring is the arena where the lives of the small people and the great,  take place. A drama about human relationships and the blindness of revenge takes centre stage and is made social commentary.

While we may lose a lot of the specificity of mise en scene as Verdi intended what we gain is an intriguing focus on the female characters. In an opera dominated by a large male chorus Gilda, Maddalena and Giovanna (who closes and opens the semi-translucent curtain at every scene change) come to the fore in this male dominated environment and tell their own story of oppression, duty, sexual conquest, seduction and sacrifice. The men are largely treated in a less flattering than usual fashion, the Duke is not seen as the great seducer jeune premier, more of slightly deluded caricature of Victor Hugo himself who when delivering his cliché La donna e mobile everyone around gives a slow-motion silent clap, as if to burst the bubble of the male ego, usually exemplified to its most macho mindlessness by a tenor. A sent up for the character of the Duke but also for the audience’s received knowledge of what an Italian tenor does…the very stuff that Richard Strauss pokes fun at Rosenkavalier and Capriccio…a figure of audience adoration and the archetypal opera biz laughing stock.

Rigoletto is treated as more than just the usual courtly fool and secretive plotter. He dominates the action as he sits before curtain up on a leather chair on stage right and pretty much remains visible between scene changes, contributing silent acting or a struggle with Gilda after he discovers her love for the mysterious stranger. Quinn Kelsey’s portrayal brings a potent mix of feral aggression and beaten down lower class depression to a psychologically complex man with many stories to tell. Michael Levine’s set is dominated in the scenes taking place in Rigoletto’s home with a life size portrait of Gilda’s mother, adding to focusing the action on the women. Her haunting presence seems to has taken over Gilda’s domestic life, she appears for the first time sat contemplating the portrait. As the drama progresses the portrait gets ripped and tumbled. The mix of naturalism and heavy dependence on symbolism is Alden’s way to tell the story by transporting the viewer to a journey of the mind. Sometimes the metaphors are not working as well, for instance Gilda’s abduction taking place as she scales a shaky ladder that drops down from the ceiling, I was frankly more concerned that Anna Christy would fall off it than about the imminent abduction of the heroine.
But the coups de théâtre moments like the red petals falling down from the ceiling and shed by the choreographed male chorus while Gilda  and the Duke declare their love for each other work very powerfully.  It adds a lightness similar to American Beauty, but in context of the mood, music and lighting it makes for an emotional flourish. The visual motif returns for the very powerful finale, where Gilda is lying under a white sheet, when Rigoletto pulls it back he animates all the petals that fly away an apparent metaphor of her life ending and her undying love for the Duke. The decision to have Christy walk to the brightly lit, centre back of stage, door after she expires is maybe indulgent but gives a suitable end to this Verdian tragedy that is never too light-handed.

The casting is a mixed bag in my view, the main problem being that the Duke is not as sexy as he is usually expected to be, Gilda is not as plush voiced as usual and Rigoletto is far too young to be convincing as the father. Bur if you can brush aside those expectations in a standard rep piece like Rigoletto, Anna Christy may be very pale voiced to be considered a Verdian soprano, but her fragile, doll-like features give her stage presence a fascinating appropriateness. Barry Banks will never be the kind of seducer usually portrayed by hairy chested Italian stallion tenors but his total conviction in the direction, focused singing and some nifty cushion kicking make him a great trooper within Alden’s vision. Quinn Kelsey possesses a tremendous voice, with the proper amplitude one can expect for a Verdi baritone, his sweet tone, sharp diction, unforced volume and explosive stage presence make him one of the hottest new talents around and he is already booked by many major opera houses in the US and Europe. At only 35 to have such gravitas and charisma is extremely impressive, just wish they made more of an effort to age him a bit more so his relationship with Gilda was instantly obvious.
The supporting cast headed by the spectacular, as usual, Diana Montague,  was very effective if at times too young for the respective parts (a constant ENO casting problem) but this must be the first time you will notice Marullo…as George Humphreys exposes his rather beautiful torso in a mass washing scene in the gentlemen’s club. The chorus is deployed in Alden’s usual fashion as one en masse character, at times adding comedic lightness or a lynching mob intensity. The gentlemen of the ENO chorus delivered in spades in both character and staying still for inordinate amounts of times, as directed.

The conducting of Graeme Jenkins was right on the money, it was not subtle but it shaped Verdi’s moody score to an atmospheric and at times suggestive sound world. On opening night the volume did overpower the singers on a couple of occasions but with another 10 performances there’s plenty of time to modulate the balance between pit and stage.

As you can tell from all the above I really enjoyed Christopher Alden’s take and his theatricality and intriguing suggestions on gender politics and balances of power make it compulsive viewing. The lavish set and costumes will hopefully lure in the people who shy away from productions with a strong directorial vision. It looks conventional on the surface but the direction highlights a world of claustrophobia, class prejudice and sexual politics.  Certainly there are more straight productions out there that tell the story in a much more conventional / linear manner but if you appreciate a thought provoking and materially luxurious production this Rigoletto is really worth seeing. The sensational, haunting singing and acting by Kelsey is worth the price of admission alone.

ENO Rigoletto list

Some tweets from the evening

Northern triple / Otello + La Voix Humaine + Dido and Aeneas / Opera North / Leeds Grand Theatre – 16 + 17 February 2013

21 Feb

Opera North tripleThis was my second long weekend away to attend some performances by Opera North. This time the overall quality and breadth of repertoire was a mix of the accomplished, the dull and the dubious.

My personal highlight was Lesley Garrett’s return to the operatic stage after over a decade in Poulenc’s take on Jean Cocteau’s one woman drama. She apparently proposed the project to Opera North and in many ways the subject matter of the piece seems to resonate with Garrett’s career and life trajectory, she is like Elle a performer past her prime and at 57 not an artist most critics would take seriously. Especially after having spent the last fifteen years singing amplified musicals and appearing in TV reality shows. She committed the cardinal sin in opera circles, she dared to be a popular entertainer when her ENO soubrette parts starting to dry out. Many called her career moves desperate and blamed her for disgracing her operatic training and the genre. Even very recently she sang a dreadfully mannered God Save the Queen for the award ceremony of the Tour de France to Bradley Wiggins.

But have to give her full credit for the performance and for the choice of work. Voix is an unflinching monologue and in Aletta Collins’ direction she appears facing the audience for the first ten minutes through what appears to be a dressing room mirror, lined with lit up bulbs. Her anguished expression the only introduction to the piece till the chilling opening chords, quickly followed by the humorous xylophone produced telephone ring tone. When the stage front disappeared we were left with a mirror image of her dressing room with the mirror and objects behind her. From my box I could constantly see the reflection of the conductor in the mirror, adding an extra dimension to the piece…at least till her lover appeared at the back of the two-way mirror a few minutes later. The faded dressing room had a folding bed on the left and a shower cubicle on the right. Garrett moved between the two during the phone conversation with her unfaithful lover in a state of rising hysteria. The emotional development through the 45 minutes of its duration was masterful and with crystal clear diction she sold every word. She avoided the usual pitfall of over-sentimentalising or over-dramatising the finale. Her sense of anguish and imminent loss were communicated with subtle hushed lines addressed to herself while the receiver lied on the bed or her chest. Collins’ direction had her most of the duration of the piece in a black negligee with a plunging neckline giving Garrett literally no place to hide. Her voice and projection were more than adequate for the part which has few sustained sections but no one can accuse of lacking stage presence. She owned the part of the terrified scorned lover with such authority that it was deeply impressive.

The performance by the orchestra under Wyn Davies was exemplary, bringing the mid-century sound of the piece alive and with an unmistakable Gallic tartness. Many feminist writers find La Voix indefensible and a sure sign of commodification of female grief, presented as an entertainment vehicle put together by two gay men. But having Aletta Collins and Garrett work on it, they added their own distinctive  take on the work. It did not make us all feel voyeuristic in the slightest, it was more a confession by a dear friend of their innermost feelings. We watched on as she fell apart and contemplated suicide. The great concluding touch was to have a double for the dishevelled Garrett in front of the mirror (and her back to the audience) while she showed up behind the mirror wearing the red sequined dress that was still hanging from one of the dressing room lights.

The work is also an interesting comment on the nature of performance and the attitude of an ageing performer to the knocks along the way. That very allusion to her own career path and its twists and turns made for a fascinating reading of the piece. Cocteau’s play is all about imperfect technology (the still unreliable telephone service heavily reliant on operators and compromised by crossed lines) and how it mirrors the imperfection of human relationships. Like a cruel phone calls stops Elle on her tracks, so we were left to mull over Garrett’s life and career in the public eye.

Unfortunately the productions of Otello and Dido and Aeneas did not grip me in the same way. Otello being transferred by Tim Albery to an american military base did not really offer much. Despite the beautifully functional set and costumes by Leslie Travers the staging did not really speak to me. The terribly old fashioned and heavily upholstered take by Moshinsky at Covent Garden packs,  to my great surprise, more of an emotional punch. The orchestra sounded much rougher with Verdi’s frequent use of grand gestures punctuated by brass. The rather open orchestra pit of the Grand Theatre possibly amplified the musical issues, making me wish for more fire and direction.

But the excellence of the cast cannot be under estimated, Ronald Samm was uneven (it seems he was suffering with a persistent cold) but sang with great affinity with the material and especially in his duets with Desdemona he was rather affecting, just a shame that their seminal duet in Act Two took place between two reversed pieces of set that had all the refined look of a public toilet, killing the dramatic impact of their confrontation.

David Kempster’s Iago was a rather cunning, calculating human being. His Era la notte, Cassio dormia was beautifully coloured with a sense of underlying malice. He was the one singer that was vocally constant and brought depth to the production.

The Desdemona of Elena Kelessidi was on the lighter side but brought beautifully spun phrases and was very focused in Act Four. I just did not believe much of the characterisation and that would be the fault of the director not finding a true personality for his main female protagonist. Usually like a much more dramatic soprano singing the part but Kelessidi delivered some gorgeous singing making the best of her resources. The extended chorus was near deafening in the opening scene and continued with much punch and bounce.

Dido and Aeneas was an over produced and under thought mess. When one is reduced to counting how many Didos are on stage (final count was 9)…you know you have a problem. My main issue for being rather bored with this bedroom set performance was how short it was on magic. The dancing itself was very beautiful and nuanced but once all the secondary characters (the witches, the spirit etc) started arriving as doppelgänger of Dido my heart started to sink. I am sorry to report that despite some excellent singing (with just enough vibrato to annoy the period performance sticklers) from Pamela Helen Stephen who gave a rather heart wrenching finale the evening failed to be truly engaging. Notable also were Phillip Rhodes and Jake Arditti who made their Opera North debut in sparkling fashion. The beautifully bright timbre of Nicholas Watts was a glimmer of light in an already sunk production.

Try to catch them while they are touring, forget what you’ve read in the papers about Garrett and book to see Voix it really is very, very good!

Opera North triple list

Stepford wives and antlers / Falstaff / Royal Opera House, Covent Garden – 19 May 2012

22 May

I have to admit that Falstaff is not a work I’m terribly familiar with and in general comedic operas don’t quite excite me. So seeing it live was far from a priority, but as I find Robert Carsen’s productions interesting and managed to find a mid week return for Orchestra Circle, the outlay of £28 was a most agreeable way to satisfy the mild curiosity I had about this work and staging.

Covent Garden has had two previous attempts at Falstaff since the popular success of Zeffirelli’s production which was killed off in 1978. The previous two exist on DVD and can be watched for comparison. Carsen chose the all too popular 1950s as the era to site his production. There are two different versions of the decade visible on stage, the world of wood panelled country house hotels and gentlemen’s clubs for Sir John Falstaff and a world of exciting, women’s lib through Formica, highly preened modernity. The mix very much reminded me of the look that Stephen Daldry’s The Hours had. The old brigade collides with life’s necessities (paying the bills in Falstaff’s case) and the new brigade calls the shots through their newly found affluence.

Verdi’s score as conducted by Daniele Gatti was transparent with wide dynamics and unstoppable propulsion. That doesn’t mean that the singers were left to fend for themselves…far from. He was constantly giving them cues and had constant eye contact with all of them. He was even singing along some of the entrances of individual characters which was rather endearing.

I was in total awe of  Ambroglio Maestri’s nuanced performance, balancing the comedic exterior of the character with a knowing sense of the internal turmoil. Anytime the mask of the “seducer” slipped he would reveal his vulnerability. His singing was as powerful as I’ve heard in any Italian opera and his more lachrymose passages were sung with great subtlety and warmth. Of course it is also amusing that he needed no padding to portray the over-indulged knight of the realm in all his seedy glory. He was also great as an ensemble artist, bouncing off the other singers and having some memorable moments with Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s sprightly Mistress Quickly.

Lemieux was a total joy. Clearly Carsen asked for a super camp take on Mistress Quickly and he got exactly that. Lemieux gave us great physical comedy, especially in her meeting scene with Falstaff in Act Two. Where her curtsies become so low that good old Falstaff has more than an eyeful of her ample cleavage. Also she had one of the most excellent wardrobes of the production, the amazing flower adorned hat in Scene 2 of the first act should really have its own postcode! Clearly Brigitte Reiffenstuel enjoyed dressing her and the other ladies immensely. The tailoring of all their clothes looked as sharp as one would expect and even the footwear was equally fashionable and colourful.

The rest of the ladies were all great as an ensemble and clearly were having a great time poking fun at the men and were full of whimsy and sparkle. My only reservation would rest on the size of Amanda Forsythe’s voice, which is incredibly beautiful but underpowered for the size of the House.

The rest of the men were a good ensemble even if they did not set my world alight. The only one exception would be the rough tone of Dalibor Jenis, who especially dressed like a cowboy cliché during his meeting with Falstaff in Act Two he seemed to be struggling for anything above the passaggio.

Carsen’s comic flair was totally on the money with some very thoughtful touches in the staging and the set. For instance when Falstaff appears in Alice Ford’s beige/yellow Formica kitchen he brings her a fox’s tail in full huntsman outfit, while in the background on Alice’s white wall tiles two galloping horse ornaments are adding equine references. It’s that level of detail that made a few lapses in taste very annoying.

On the opening stage picture while Falstaff is in his country house hotel room in his dirty long johns the tables with the detritus of several days of room service are strewn all over the room. But the first thing my eye was led to, were the huge castors supporting the tables. It seemed silly to have beautiful silver and flowers on tables this obviously ready to roll off for the next stage setting. Surely there must have been a better way to make this detail work more in keeping with the rest of the era evoked. Once I concentrated on the castors the more the illusion of wood panelling stopped working and all I could see was just paint. Another obvious silly mistake was the cases of wine (which according to the libretto it’s from Cyprus) the stacked up cases were clearly labelled Petrus.  It may seem mean to point out such minuscule failings but in a production this detailed they really matter.

The way he have a frozen moment in time at The Garter Inn in Scene 2 of Act One was a simple but beautiful way to direct attention to the amorous couple, by freezing the movement of the waiters and plunging the stage in dark blue light. Not highly original but very effective.

Thankfully from my seat I missed most of the contribution of Rupert the horse in Act Three…far too many members of the audience were too busy giggling at a horse when Maestri was much more interesting to listen and watch…a sad moment when the audience falls for a silly gimmick. At least Falstaff gets to ride the horse on his way to Windsor’s Royal Park…

The conclusion of the Act Three unfortunately sags under the weight (terrible pun, I know) of the plot holes of Boito’s libretto. Also Carsen’s idea for Nanetta to be carried on one of those tables (with the hideous castors) was a far too predictable a solution. But the charming transformation from evening at the Park to dinner time with Falstaff was very quick and effective…a particularly practical and stylish touch was using the chorus and singers’ helmet/antlers as quasi trophies on the side walls of the dining room. With Falstaff depositing his at the front of the stage.

All in all, this staging is a great adaptation with a sleek 1950s look that gives off sparks of comedy and some truly exceptional playing from the orchestra made it a truly memorable evening. The question of course is whether this production will stick around at Covent Garden or will join all the previous casualties. If a future revival has as good an ensemble of singers then it may survive. But hope some of the details will be worked on and unify the overall look even more.  If you have the chance go along to one of the big screen broadcasts on the 30 May, I can imagine the staging will look fantastic on camera and Maestri and Lemieux’s facial expressions will be something to behold. Of course a DVD/BluRay release won’t be too far behind.

Movingly this performance was dedicated to the memory of the great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau who died a day earlier.

Some tweets from the evening

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