Tag Archives: Marina Poplavskaya

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]

Get on the Robert Le Diable casting travelator…

3 Dec

DiableIt doesn’t happen too frequently but Robert Le Diable at the Royal Opera is one of the most unstable productions this side of the famous spat between Cecilia Bartoli and Jonathan Miller .

The original cast boasted Juan Diego Florez and Diana Damrau. JDF abandoned ship early on and then the delightful Diana decided motherhood was above any aspiration to sing a rare French opera.

Then Bryan Hymmel was booked to be Robert, judging on the back of his summer Énée he will delight.

Things got promising again by announcing the replacement of Diana Damrau by Jennifer Rowley, a promising young singer who had a breakthrough triumph in New York City Opera’s Orfeo early this year. She was auditioned for the part and the powers that be clearly thought she was up to the standard. It was one of those exciting occurrences that can make a young singer’s career. But it seems it was not meant to be.

Earlier today the ROH announced that J Rowley would be replaced by Patrizia Ciofi and Sofia Fomina dashing the hopes of all of us that looked forward to the debut performances by Rowley. Their release does go to lengths to point out that the management of the Royal Opera are behind the singer and indirectly pointing the finger to external forces (director and/or conductor). It seems internal politics won over and the audiences who looked forward to the production have another reason to be uneasy at curtain up on Thursday. After all we’ve already had the near farcical walkout by Marina Poplavskaya who actually returned a week later!

Despite the Royal Opera claiming to be a world opera house and Kasper Holten making too frequent references to it, still seems to be behaving in the most unprofessional manner to singers it engages and causes huge embarrassment to artists that evidently have done nothing wrong. But find themselves being replaced four days before the premiere. We can all imagine how devastating it must be to have gone through the whole rehearsal period and then to be asked not to perform. It seems ridiculous that the RO will allow external forces to alter the casting so close to the opening night and more akin to the way a village hall is run. The management for all their support they have shown to the cast, they were proven spineless against the whims of the production team. Still looking forward to seeing it, but with a much heavier heart.

Lets hope the rumoured involvement of Rowley with next season’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes alongside Erwin Schrott and Directed by Stefan Herheim, will come to fruition.


It seems the press office of the ROH has been active disseminating vox pops by Laurent Pelly to various media outlets, exclaiming how perfect Patrizia Ciofi is as Isabelle making this sad story even worse. Arts correspondents being the usual obedient types, of course did not ask for any statement by Daniel Oren…he’s only the conductor, why should he be consulted on musical matters? Are we to believe this was a decision taken by Pelly? It is ludicrous as it is unprofessional and downright shabby the way the Royal Opera has behaved trying to calm down the furore over this affair.  

Of course I make the presumption that the casting director, music director and Jennifer Rowley’s agent did their job in the first place.  But I’ll go out on limp and say that I’d rather see a whole lot less of Daniel Oren at Covent Garden. Maybe it’s time he was told that he’s not irreplaceable either.

The Tsar’s Bride, a largely forgettable Russian tale? / Royal Opera House, Covent Garden – 27 April 2011

2 May

The first ever production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride has had some interesting reviews.  And have to confess that the main reason for seeing it was to witness a live performance by Marina Poplavskaya, a singer that I have systematically avoided in the last five years, put off by her woolly Italian singing in televised and radio broadcast performances. If nothing else it was a great chance to see her sing in her native tongue!

Let me be clear from the outset, I found Rimsky-Korsakov’s music pretty much forgettable and really not sophisticated enough to grace the stage of a major Opera House. Mark Elder and his beautiful conducting, and the alert and responsive orchestra could not disguise the really thin and plodding music that Rimsky endowed them with.

This performance may have  not turned me into a fan of the composer but it made an interesting impact, I thought that the contemporary staging of the piece really benefited the action. Had they kept the 16th century setting it would have made for a very miserable night at the ROH. The addition of the Mafia and the salubrious settings gave the piece an interesting dark veneer that has a lot in common both with story itself and the world around us. Paul Curran was not exercising a self indulgent directorial streak by transferring the action, he was adding another layer of meaning that gave the work more relevance and interest.


The restaurant setting allowed for an intriguing meeting of bourgeoisie surroundings and criminality to co exist and cross fertilise. Remember reading tweets about the lack of smoking in this part that was deemed to detract from the apparent pursuit of realism. Well, interestingly there were at least two members of the chorus that were sporting cigarettes in addition to a drug transaction in the foreground. Johan Reuter was the early star of the act with convincing acting and a bright timbre that made him the centre of all the action. It was at this maelstrom of butch masculinity that Lyubasha, as portrayed by Ekaterina Gubanova was sucked into. Her melancholic peasant song shone with confidence and an obvious need for approval and male attention. She was needy and proud, a combination difficult to pull of but she did do it with gusto. Unfortunately the guy seating in front of me fell asleep and missed most of her part in this act…a great loss indeed.


Brought the first appearance of Marfa (portayed by Marina Poplavskaya) at the back of the restaurant, merrily dancing around and fooling about with her best friend Dunyasha (Jurgita Adamonyte). The acting side of the scene was beautifully conveyed and both singers sang with feeling and merry abandon. Luybasha’s entry and the gang circling created an end of an era feel, prefiguring the tragic finale. The scene between Bomelius (Vasily Gorshkov) and Luybasha was one of the highlights of the night as Gubanova was singing some of the best vocal writing by the composer, while acting her socks off against a mountain of a man. This transaction that was the stuff of folklore and myth (a poison to make Marfa ugly and thus undesirable to Gryaznoy, her lover) became much more real and sleazy. A mix of necessity, jealousy and malice. A mix of feelings that brought her character more into life and her rivalry with Marfa into sharp focus. She was the scorned lover wanting revenge against the almost virginal purity of the object of affection. A situation that quite a few members of the audience must have had to deal with at some stage of their live, hopefully minus the use of poison. It was truly disappointing the deafening silence after Gubanova’s scena. A bizarre reaction that will remain a mystery.


After the interval we were treated to a marvellous set depicting an oligarch’s penthouse apartment complete with pool and mega skyscrapers being built in the distance on the photographic backcloth. It was a decadent setting for a sharp turn to the plot. We begin with the declaration of the nuptials between Marfa and Likov. After some male bonding between Likov (vividly sang by Dmytro Popov) and Gryaznoy the arrival of  Marfa seemed awkward and she looked a bit lost till she had to sing her passionate lovers’ duet with Likov. In my view he stole the show by declaring his love on the diving board and a neat touch was presenting her the wedding ring in a trademark green Tiffany box. The announcement that she is selected to be the Tsar’s Bride comes as if the whole weight of the universe has fallen on our protagonists’ shoulders. The close of the act brings us to a full circle from extreme happiness to profound despair and helplessness.


The backdrop is a shiny photo reproduction of a gilt panelled room with a racked red velvet covered floor. And as if to help the singers project (especially Marfa in all her weakness) the stage is much more enclosed space (see detail of set in picture collage above). Reuter is heartbreaking admitting that he poured the potion in the Tsarina’s drink but is cut short by Lyubasha rushing in to admit that she swapped the love potion with her poison. Gubanova was extremely passionate, being every bit the desperate woman. A totally outstanding contribution, that infuriated me that it did not get applauded! The only staging anomaly came from Reuter stabbing her straight in her abdomen while the chorus was describing the knife going through her heart. A silly disconnect but easily understandable under the pressure of the passionate exchange between the two singers. Marfa’s portrayal was as a demented jilted bride. Poplavskaya’s demeanour and physical appearance was a good match, but dramatically something was missing. I had the nagging feeling that she was controlling the character too much, that her madness was over analysed. Especially against the emotional volcano of Gubanova’s portrayal she had to give her Tsarina a little bit more substance. Adding to this, the extremely thin orchestration, the finale lacked in satisfaction and catharsis. Curran allowing for Marfa to have her throat cut in the last seconds of the opera was a great spark of showmanship, but it was a shame we did not feel too much empathy for her trials.


I can happily report that Gubanova, Popov and Reuter got the loudest applause on the night. Poplavskaya appearing a bit sour and actually not getting such a loud applause, I just wanted to scream at her “you should be enjoying yourself more”. As her vocal performance and some of her acting were very convincing, I still think her voice is missing that all important bloom when she’s reaching for her higher register. But she is a promising force if she allows herself to develop more, dramatically.

In conclusion this was an interesting evening with some really stimulating action on stage. The great conducting by Mark Elder was ultimately betrayed by the sheer lack of stellar music. It may be one of the gems of Russian opera but in my view it really cannot stand next to any accomplished opera by Donizetti, Bellini or Verdi. It was lacking the characterful qualities of Italian bel canto and at the same time it failed to offer a distinctive alternative as a showcase of the Russian school, the establishment of which was Rimsky-Korsakov’s obsession. Finally I would like to see a lot more of Paul Curran in the directorial seat at the Royal Opera, his contribution was really wonderful.

Is it a yey or a ney?

27 Apr

A number of critics have written their reviews of The Tsar’s Bride that currently runs at the Royal Opera House.

Based on the common knowledge that I am no huge fan of  Poplavskaya here is how the reviews I’ve seen shape up:

  • The Daily Mail’s critic judges her performance as outstanding
  • Rupert in the Torigraph seems to think she was in shinningly beautiful voice
  • The Islington Gazette seems to ignore her.
  • The Stage gives and overall glowing review highlighting Marina’s sensitivity coming to the fore.
  • Over at The Guardian, Andrew Clements found her performance glacial and reading between the lines he allows as to assume trite. While his Observer colleague Fiona Maddocks gave points to her coolness matching to the heroine but points out to poor intonation and dryness.
  • Bachtrack’s David Karlin seemed rather impressed with her performance and called it memorable and lyrical.
  • What’s on Stage didn’t quite mentions anything particularly about her performance on the night.
  • The Independent’s Anna Picard was not that impressed by the opera itself but seemed to enjoy the singing +1 for Popsy, then.

To do it in scorecard stylee

So this time it seems Marina has won over the professionals…hope I will be able to confirm that with my piece that will come after tonight’s performance!

Links for reviews:

What’s on Stage

Daily Mail

Daily Telegraph

Islington Gazette

What’s on Stage

The Guardian

The Observer


The Independent

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