Tag Archives: Marie-Nicole Lemieux

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

Great Singers

26 May

Tonight’s Ariodante concert performance at the Barbican’s sold out Hall made me wonder of the consequences on booking great singers and then letting them down with a really sloppy orchestra.

We had Joyce Didonato, Karina Gauvin and Marie-Nicole Lemieux on the podium and somehow feel cheated that such amazing singers were short-changed and did not get the backing they deserved. Il Complesso Barocco should be ashamed for give us badly tuned, bland music making while observing dubious tempi in quite a few passages. The great singing thankfully soared despite the music…a statement I never thought I’d make for any opera by Handel.

Will elaborate in a further post but for now I wanted to get out there my frustration about a missed opportunity for an amazing evening that somehow did not materialise.

A three act Pelléas et Mélisande, yes three acts! / Barbican Hall – 19 April 2011

20 Apr


Natalie Dessay Mélisande
Simon Keenlyside Pelléas
Marie-Nicole Lemieux Geneviève
Laurent Naouri Golaud
Alain Vernhes Arkel
Khatouna Gadelia Yniold
Nahuel Di Pierro Doctor

My knowledge of French opera is at most rudimentary,  and never had the time to tackle Pelléas et Mélisande head on before. Unfortunately due to my bad planning and awful London transport I was too late for the start so let’s pretend that Act One never existed. Also I would not recommend to anyone to be late if you have second row tickets…got a grumpy look from Simon Keenlyside as we sat down!

I had listened to numerous excerpts of the opera and always found the expansive soundworld of Debussy to be interesting and compositionally accomplished but never quite grabbed me like much of Italian opera from the Baroque to the 19th century. So I knew the only way I’d sit down and listen to the whole opera would be a live performance. After seeing the cast I booked my tickets almost a year ahead and the journey started!

From the first bars of the Act Two it was very clear that Langrée and his Parisian forces were totally idiomatic, their soundstage was wide and enveloping the textural detail was there and the string playing was creamy and flowing like the many watery references in the work. A nice touch was how Langrée was almost singing along with the singers reciting (silently) the libretto alongside the performers he was queuing.

What seemed a bit strange was that Dessay, possibly the most famed singing actress of our time, was almost immobile and seemed almost attached to her score. There were glimpses of acting, like in the scene where she drops the ring in the well and her conversation with Pelléas was full of warmth and familiarity which accompanied with Keenlyside’s ardent boyish acting and Dessay’s radiant forward projection it was a marvel. But when the question of Pelléas by Golaud came about Naouri stole the show with vibrant acting that seemed natural and emotionally involved and his singing was as accomplished. I particularly enjoyed how he used the page turning of his score as a way to express the turmoil of his character while questioning Pelléas about Mélisande. He was also wonderfully naturalistic in his interaction with Yniold, being at times tender and at times very harsh and investigative.  Khatouna Gadelia is one young soprano to watch out for, she showed a fresh tone, beautiful diction and vibrant dramatic qualities.

In Acts Three and Four Dessay gave us a beautifully sang heroine reaching the end of her life with a tragic but at the same time a breezy resignment. Her declaring I’m not happy to Golaud was emotional and beautifully sang which made her apparent over-reliance on the score all the more annoying as her singing was delicate and powerful as needed for the part of the romantic heroine.

Of course what stroke me in quite a few places was the banality of the libretto, especially some of the metaphors looked even worse in translation e.g. water in a muslin bag comes to mind. Of course Italian libretti are full of silly references and bizarre plotlines but at least they are saved by the melodies within the score, they have key arias that lift the work. With Pelléas et Mélisande there is no such respite, which in part is a credit to Debussy’s boldness and in the other hand it can be suffocating during a live performance.

The very lushness and enveloping nature of the score is not to be underestimated, as I tellingly Tweeted about it, it reminded me of a wall to wall plush carpeted London semi. And that I was more of a floorboards kind of guy (which is totally true by the way). It seems that the me and Claude will not get along too well for sometime but it was a great experience that I wouldn’t want to repeat to soon. But dear patient reader that has nothing to do with the quality of the performance as this was a wonderful cast  with the exception maybe  of Alain Vernhes who was underpowered against the enveloping forces of the orchestra, that may have to do with the conductor not being too attentive and keeping the playing at lower levels of volume. And a truly excellent and idiomatic orchestra it’s just me and Claude will have to talk over our differences in the near future and maybe some rapport can be built.  

And of course it was charming having the orchestra playing Happy Birthday for Natalie Dessay with all of us singing very badly to it. And also odd having a member of the audience four seats away booing rather violently Langrée at the end of the performance, we were all puzzled at his reaction, but hey, clearly Debussy affects people in totally different ways, at least he didn’t fall asleep! I also regret not seeing Lemieux perform in Act One as I can imagine she would have been sensational. I’ll have to wait for her next performance at The Barbican with Joyce Didonato in Ariodante which will have to be one of the highlights of this year!  

Here is the link to Fiona Maddocks’s expert review of the same performance: Click!

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