Tag Archives: Laurent Pelly

Robert le terrible / Robert Le Diable / Royal Opera House – 9 December 2012

15 Dec

ROH Robert Le DiableWhen asked about redeeming features by my partner I was very short on examples. Meyerbeer’s score is eventful put inarticulate and at times inappropriate. But the major culprit of making this a dour night out is Laurent Pelly, a director very close to my heart. But this time he has seriously misjudged the mood and setting. Betraying both the source material and making it a slog for audience and singers.

The reputation of Meyerbeer’s music is for bombastic nonsense and a few well crafted arias. What I did not expect was the lack of any dramatic quality or theatrical value in this score, not helped by a meandering plot and a libretto that is a mess. Even the translation caused the odd unintended giggle. Robert’s question to Bertram (referring to the just departed Alice) ‘What has come all over her’ was one such cringeworthy moment. An indicator how far down the pantomime route this staging has taken the work.
Meyerbeer did compose Robert as a three act comic opera and had to modify it into a five act spectacular with ballet to fulfil the requirements of the Paris Opéra. And listening to the music the constant change of mood and tone creates the impression that this was a work written by committee, such is the disparity of the  constituent parts that any semblance of integration is woefully absent. One moment we have a seriously bombastic trombone laden intro to the scene between Bertram and Robert with a few sharp exchanges taking place and out of a sudden a break appears in the form of a harp solo, stopping the action on its tracks and just making for a rude interruption. That was one such strange jolt in the plot that takes many more forms throughout the 4 1/2 hours of its duration.
A more sensitive director would have created a more integrated spectacle to counter-balance the plot and patchy music. But Pelly in his near pantomime parody of the opera accentuates all the worst aspects of the composition, from the chorus swaying in tune to the music to the excessive placement of singers on the proscenium and making them sing straight to the audience.

Another aggravating factor of the production was the low quality of the stagecraft, sets being used badly and disappear clumsily. The stage hands being noisy and actually heard very clearly shouting at each other, behind the curtain, during the overture. Seeing hands moving the silly castle in Act Two was a particular low, alongside Alice being wheeled from side stage left on engraved clouds on wheels in Act Five. Allowing a large quantity of confetti from the end of Act Four to occupy the foreground of Act Five was both unsightly and an indication of negligent clean up during set changes. May seem minor but it was an indication of sloppy staging.

The two sets that really worked beautifully were the beguiling mountainous construction in Act Three taking the engraved look to an apogee and using the height of the stage to its advantage. But shamefully let down by the silly pantomime acting which robbed any sense of gravitas. And the set for the notorious nun ballet at the second half of Act Three was the most beautiful gothick construction, the incline adding a great perspective. The rust colour of the rails and the dark stone and greys throughout were a moody addition. Now if only the ballet and the acting overall was more convincing this could have been a heart stopping scene. Obviously the music does not help, when it turns into the most generic music to hop to since Adolphe Adam’s near contemporary La Fille du Danube. But again this lack of cohesion and episodic nature of this scene betrays the revisions made when it was reworked in collaboration with Filippo Taglioni for his super star ballerina daughter Marie. Mayerbeer extended the ballet for the first staging in Berlin and I wonder if the rather conventional and unimaginative middle part of it came from that time.

In Act Four, once more the white lego castle appeared, with quite a few stage hands visible…not inspiring confidence and we got confetti to tie together the wedding theme. Thank heavens for Ciofi’s beautiful rendition of Robert, toi que j’aime which was technically near flawless but somehow lacking in emotion, not helped by the cartoony throne and ridiculous surroundings. But at least the Act was topped by the hilariously hammy breaking of the branch by Robert (the one  he stole from the cloister of St Rosalia). At this point I had lost the will to laugh and all I could muster was just a slow head shake.

Act Five was the time for the build your own church template set. If that was meant to be a stand in for Palermo Cathedral it was both a poor idea and rather cheap looking. The Palace of Palermo as seen previously and it’s distinct papery texture was the lap of luxury in comparison. So a lot of people walked in and out of this church structure made out of white icing (ok almost). Nothing of much consequence happened, despite the fact Robert at last learns that Bertram is the devil and we got some pantomime green lighting showing evident fury…as Hymel’s face had a fixed mad look. But then we have the main (very thin) plot mechanism unfold at last…Robert gets given his mother’s will from Alice (and with Poplavskaya sounding quite hoarse by that point) it was a panto scene too far. The way Bertram gets swallowed by a monstrous face at stage right is so ridiculous to be risible but then Pelly adds the final touch with him before curtain fall walking across the stage with his suitcases.

Overall the performance of the orchestra under Daniel Oren was disappointing. The fervour was missing and his cautious reading failed to ignite the more bright parts of the score.
Brian Hymel as Robert sounded stretched to the absolute max while navigating a maze of high Cs and the odd D. The part alongside  the one of Isabelle is written in a very idiosyncratic way with very little relation to the rest of the vocal scoring. As Meyerbeer did customise the parts to the famous singers that were asked to sing those parts at the Paris Opéra. Hymel’s voice seemed at odds with the highly lyrical melodic material and despite his heroic struggle the voice took an ugly cast from all the extra effort involved.

Patrizia Ciofi was a good vocal match and delivered her arias with stellar results but remained definitely forgettable after the curtain fell. Her stage presence seems to me to lack any memorable features. She shows up, sings beautifully and not much else. The dramatic investment was just not there. My highlight was her tender rendition of En vain j’espère in Act Two which was unfortunately undermined by being acted for laughs. Maybe replacing Jennifer Rowley four days before the première was not such a great idea.

John Relyea was vocally strong and consistent if not terribly sophisticated. His greatest achievement being his aria and resulting duet with Alice in Act Three where he was allowed to show his dark side by the direction. But somehow his singing through the rest of the show seemed more coaxed out than released with relish and menace.

Marina Poplavskaya on the other hand was a really good fit for the part of Alice. Her at time astringent tone fits well with the material and she sang very well despite having obvious vocal problems caused by a reported cold. In Act Three her Quand je quittai la Normandie had the seed of a great performance but unfortunately her cold led to considerable scoops to the note and a major crack in a fully throated C. In full health I can imagine she would be immensely enjoyable.

The smaller parts were very well performed with a particular highlight the debut of Jean-Francois Borras who had huge amounts of fun being Raimbaut and had the unforced native sound that Hymel or Relyea ultimately lacked. Lets hope we get to see him again at the ROH soon.

As you can tell everyone, this evening at the Royal Opera House was arduous and with very little returns. I had to get rid of my Orchestra Stalls tickets and saved myself a serious amount of money and the aggravation of seeing this seriously off putting production. Maybe a less tongue in cheek production would accentuate the positive aspects of the work but I am afraid Pelly’s dead comic hand gave us an evening verging on the tragicomical. 

It was utterly disappointing and possibly the last time any of Meyerbeer’s music will see that particular stage for years to come. Robert Le Diable’s position as a historic curio remains. It is being broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and also will be released as a DVD/Bluray in 2013, so hopefully you will have the chance to examine closely this production.

ROH Robert Le Diable list

[youtube http://youtu.be/NbdVJilEKvM]
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Sexy enchantment / L’heure espagnole + L’enfant et les sortilèges / Glyndebourne – 6 August 2012

10 Aug

When I looked through the programme of the 2012  Glyndebourne opera festival, this Ravel double bill stood out. I couldn’t think of a better combination of director and works than that and it became instantly the reason for my first visit. I have systematically avoided the rarefied black tie affair that is Glyndebourne, mainly put off by the image of toffee nosed bozos roaming around the Sussex countryside. But for any UK based opera lover it’s a venue difficult to ignore as it is the birth place of country house opera for the modern age,  since its inception in 1934 under the auspices of John Christie and Audrey Mildmay and not forgetting the first general manager…a certain Rudolf Bing (no, not of the failing Microsoft search engine). The festival up to this day is pitched as entertainment for the upper classes but has always had high artistic goals. It has been the springboard for international careers for a number of very important singers and conductors, including my beloved Janet Baker. Also one success we can’t under-estimate is their ability to keep the festival self-sufficient without any public subsidy (except for Arts Council support for their Tour and Education programmes). A reason that will stop me making rude comments about very pricey Stalls seats for all shows. But how was my first visit, I hear you ask…

I was immediately impressed by how disarmingly laid back it was. Despite being surrounded by the kind of plummy accents one would only dream of at Covent Garden, the black tie uniform in a way adds a veneer of parity across the distinct class divides. Who wouldn’t find dressing up to go to the opera in a beautiful garden and historic house enticing? Yours truly strolled around the manicured lawns and climbing roses for an hour and a half and then the bell was tolled asking us nicely to make our way to the theatre. The theatre, designed by Michael Hopkins in 1994 is as simple in appearance as the remains of the Tudor manor house that make up the country house. All red brick, wood and concrete. The stark appearance will surely come as a surprise to some. The unadorned exterior and interior gives a non distracting backdrop for the magic of opera to unfold. And the acoustic is possibly the best I’ve heard in the UK, being slightly reflective and true. An auditorium that seats 1200 spectators is always going to feel more intimate than the big two London stages but it is surprisingly so. Every single note of Ravel’s beatific music enveloped us in an extraordinary way.

L’heure was as sexy as one would expect. The stage set is an idiosyncratic mix of clock faces in every possible piece of furniture that springs to life following Ravel’s atmospheric and very quirky cues. A nice touch was the makeshift curtain made up of fabric patches which opened slowly to reveal the lower half of the set, including a washing machine with a clock in its drum and a sculpted life size bull…that surely raised a few laughs. Pelly’s direction is full of physical comedy and always with a keen eye for the music, as Ravel’s light composition always makes suggestions for the action. The singers were clearly exceptionally well drilled and the organised chaos on stage always added to the story and making beautiful stage pictures from the suggestive score.

The stand out performances came from Elliot Madore (making his UK debut) who gave us a naughty and endearing Ramiro with gorgeously sensual singing and vivid stage presence. Stéphanie d’Oustrac gave as a piquant and extremely sexy Concepción that lit up the stage, her singing being as hot as she looked in her revealing outfit. The kind hearted clock mending husband as portrayed by François Piolino was a figure of fun and maybe hinting at silent suffering inside. They played it for laughs with beautifully timed vignettes…a particular favourite being Concepción removing her panties when left alone with Ramiro which raised a quiet giggle around the auditorium. Kazushi Ono’s conducting of the London Philharmonic Orchestra was exemplary, allowing the transparency and warmth of Ravel’s music sufficient space to shine while keeping it moving sprightly alongside the hilarious  fast paced stage action. It was as sexy as can be.

Then came the long interval, all 1h30mins of it…where we managed to squeeze a delicious three course meal and another walk around the grounds. I can imagine that can be the interval of oblivion for a lot of punters ending up even forgetting what they’ve seen in the first half. But thankfully in a double bill that problem is slightly alleviated (provided the alcohol intake is fairly low).

L’enfant was clearly directed with a darker much more gothic intention befitting the subject matter. A lot of reviewers seem to find Colette’s libretto unwieldy and not musical enough, on the contrary I thought it grounded the story and gave it great charm and narrative flow.
The opening set of the child doing his homework on a giant table and chair had the feel of an outsize Richard Artschwager sculpture and unfortunately caused a large part of the audience to applaud…continuing a recent bugbear of mine, where we start to see Met Opera style applause for inanimate objects. Can someone make it stop, please?
The oversized look of the furniture was simple, stylish and very effective, the kind of presentation Pelly has got us used to. L’enfant is so easy to turn into a cheap musical full of silly props and dancing teapots in the Disney tradition. But he managed to keep the darkness of the score and the underlying sense of wartime tragedy that runs as an undercurrent through it. Despite the frenetic at times change of tableaux the backstage team did a great job giving us seamless transitions within seconds, keeping up with the around twenty scene changes admirably well. If I had to pick one scene as the one that wowed us, it would be the torn wallpaper one, with the members of the chorus in vague 18th century dress looking like they’ve just escaped the Toile de Jouy wallpaper and step out on the torn piece (ingeniously hiding inside it the sheep mentioned in their aria). That scene encapsulates his directing style, by being quick-witted, not afraid to be literal but always sprinkled with a magical touch.

The piece calls for a totally co-ordinated ensemble cast doubling up on many of the parts and Glyndebourne’s troupe delivered in spades, every singer relished their vignettes with particular highlights the two armchairs who managed to be both menacing and darkly fascinating. The fire as sang by Kathleen Kim was both vivid and aggressive and in sparkling  vocal form. And of course the duet of the china cup and the teapot (which the libretto reverts to English for the pot and cod Chinese for the cup) which was done with such ease and devilish cheek it turned the house to a bunch of laughing children. A work that can too easily turn into a piece of cheap musical theatre was turned into a much more sophisticated affair without losing its touch with the playful side of Ravel’s music and Colette’s thoughtful libretto.

This double bill was full of panache, varying from the wide-eyed excitement of a cheating wife to the unexpected horror of a misbehaving child. Make sure you tune in on the 19 August to see the live broadcast on Glyndebourne’s and The Guardian’s websites. Or even better get some tickets and see it live in all your finery, it’s worth the trip just for the ravishing playing of the London Philharmonic. I will definitely return to the Festival next year.

Read More

The productions’ page on Glyndebourne’s website: http://glyndebourne.com/production/ravel-double-bill
Interesting article on Colette’s libretto:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/jul/27/colette-lenfant-sortileges-libretto
Interview with Laurent Pelly on the Guardian website: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/aug/09/glyndebourne-odd-ravel-double-bill

Promotional videos for the two productions

Tweets from the evening

That was an incredible performance! One of those perfect, once in a lifetime perfect. Thank you!* / Cendrillon / Royal Opera House, Covent Garden – 11 July 2011

12 Jul

What a night it was!

Writing my impressions on the fourth performance may seem late to many but ask any opera singer and they will confess that three shows in they feel much more relaxed in the character and the first night nerves are a thing of the past. I want to see a production at its best and not just to be there on opening to do it first, that is frankly the job of so many much more experienced professional reviewers. In this instance it seems that Joyce DiDonato was not in her best singing voice in a couple of performances owing to a cold. So glad to have missed those earlier manifestations of this glorious romp.

Arriving in the auditorium and you’re faced with a row of closed doors, walls papered with Charles Perrault’s book. The set itself (designed by Barbara De Limburg) and its interior world of the book itself is such a clever and expandable device that Laurent Pelly used to a great effect. The whole set is a big concertina construction that opens and closes to create from the intimate bedroom of Lucette (Cendrillon’s real name) to the grand salon of the palace. Extra mobile constructions are adding a balcony, a smoky rooftop and a pile of appropriately red books is the outcrop that the fairy godmother makes her final triumphant appearance on.

Who said that productions can’t be fun and effective without moving the action into a Parisian brothel or any other unrelated location so beloved of a number of European directors? Laurent Pelly directed the action with aplomb and with great comic timing.

The fact he also designed the costumes added another layer of fun (his odd and silly costumes for the various princesses are just hilarious) and they were used to give it a total look that helps the work all the way. For instance Ewa Podleś Madame de la Haltiere was defined by her comic timing but also by the absurd padding and restrictive nature of her costuming. Though he couldn’t resist an early bit of furniture abuse by Cendrillon’s father Pandolfe, which was not necessary.   But it was little thoughtful, intelligent touches that made it so much fun to watch, such as:  the army of look-a-likes, women dressed like Cendrillon (being the helpers of the fairy godmother) and men looking like prince charming in the forest/roof top sequence. Added extra visual interest and quirkiness. The grand palace gates turn into a clock counting down the minutes for Cendrillon’s departure at the end of Act Two…you get the idea!

Our Cendrillon, Joyce DiDonato was in incredible vocal form. She glided through the trickiest passages with smoothness and character. And there was none of the obvious tightness on the radio broadcast from last Saturday. Whatever she did on Sunday, we’re thankful for, as she was amazing. Her first aria was warm and heartfelt and right on the money. And there was an interesting trajectory through her performance. She started at a lowish piano sound and escalated the volume of the voice towards the last two acts. In effect giving extra depth to her interpretation from a young resigned but good-hearted girl to the belle of the ball. Her Third Act aria (Seule, je partirai, mon pere) was incredible with such warmth and humanity, we had no second thoughts Cendrillon was thinking of her mother. Of course the obvious highlights of the night were the duets with Prince Charmant, Coote and DiDonato were a beautiful all round couple, rising the emotional temperature to the maximum.

Alice Coote as the Prince Charmant was exemplary, with powerful projection and impressive male mannerisms convinced straight away as the prince of the tale. She acted the part top to toe and her intensity was an absolute joy. Hope the Royal Opera will entrust her big roles in the future as she was an awesome sight.

Ewa Podleś as Madame de Haltiere was the comedic core of the evening, whatever she did on stage everyone laughed out loud! Her beautiful contralto echoed to the roof of the auditorium. In my mind she was almost channelling Hyacinth Bucket which made her adorably silly. She was one of the main reasons I booked to see it and she surely delivered! Such elegance and flair alongside her crazily dressed daughters. Pure genius!

Jean-Philippe Lafont was again as funny as Podleś  but he was having obvious problems in the upper register of his voice, but given the role, it all added to a very sympathetic portrayal of the character. A great contribution to the overall team work.

Eglise Gutiérrez as the Fairy Godmother was a treat, a sugar-coated treat! She ornamented and relished her trills and staccati. She gave us a rather louche Godmother that lightened up proceedings further and added the frosting on this french fancy of an opera. Surely looking forward to her Amina next season!

The orchestra under the direction of Bertrand De Billy sounded fresh and bouncy. A total equal to the world-class singing on stage.

A lot of opera goers would still associate the title role with Frederica von Stade. She performed it for decades and also made the famous recording of the role in 1979 under Julius Rudel. But judging on the recording it’s time we forgot about her and realised that the Cendrillon of our time is Joyce DiDonato, who sounded not only an equal to Flicka but surely surpassed her last night.

Steal, beg or borrow and get some tickets to see the final two performances or rush to one of the open air venues that host the live telecast this Wednesday. If the weather permits I’ll surely be doing the latter. Possibly the most enjoyable night at Covent Garden for me since 2003. Cross your fingers for a very possible DVD release of the telecast. A total joy, an operatic fairytale, what more can anyone ask for?

*My Tweet after being awestruck by such a brilliant performance by Joyce DiDonato and the rest of the excellent cast.

Details of the outdoor screenings can be found here

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