Tag Archives: Puccini

Sleepless nightmare / Turandot / Royal Opera House – 20 February 2013

23 Feb

ROH TurandotAh Turandot we meet again. I must be one of the most squeamish people when it comes to confronting most of Puccini’s output. His sentimentality and usual lack of in depth characterisation usually leave me from totally cold to in a state of fury. Attended Thursday’s performance just to see the Liù of Ailyn Pérez, after having to wait for over a year to see here again in London after her last recital it is a huge source of pleasure to have her sing Manon, Liù and Violetta in the space of a few months. The production by Andrei Serban dates back to 1984 and it was first seen in Los Angles as part of the cultural festival for the Olympics. It has all the hallmarks of an 80s production, stylisation, colour blocked costumes, affluence of unnecessary dancers and overtly detailed sets and a props. The conducting by Nicola Luisotti was precise and gave the score its expected luminosity and garish colouring. Of course what can be said about Puccini’s second take on Eastern exotica? If Madama Butterfly has a certain solemnity to it, Turandot is a confusing melange of garish Orientalist motifs and over-stretched ideas. Surely in 1924 this score must have sounded as out of date as anything written 30 years earlier. When one starts thinking what Strauss was producing at the same time it makes Puccini look like a spent force, rehashing the same old language to the same old dubious Orientalist clichés and paper thin characters.

Strauss at that point had written Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos and Die Frau ohne Schatten all rather varied and most approaching the status of a musical masterpiece, frequently with excellent libretti. The reverence for Puccini’s output is simply puzzling to me. In Turandot the main interest is the dreaded riddle scene in Act Two, what can only be described as a screaming match not akin to two washerwomen having a fight. A total vacuity of purpose and emotional content marks it as the black hole in the heart of the work. Do we really care about Turandot’s story or about Calaf’s quest…nope, I couldn’t give a toss. Both protagonists are an offensive approximation of what Eastern characters ought to be, brutal and not in any way relating to the audience. The opera is all-consumed with the otherness of the story to actually care to tell it well.

The production replaced the 1963 Cecil Beaton designed production by Sandro Sequi. The visual inspiration seems to be in equal measures the contemporary world of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (also of 1984 vintage)  and low-grade Chinese lanterns from the supermarket. The costumes being a particularly offensive aspect, being in ugly bright colour-blocked polyester are neither flattering or in any way attractive. The set is a mix of textured wood and trellis-work with some oversized garden ornaments and ritualistic objects. Clearly the brief was to create a more austere setting from Beaton’s busy production. But clearly that quest  for simplicity did not go far enough with ugly carry ons and curious masked figures showing up at any opportunity. The overall feel reminds me of the recent appalling staging of Judith Weir’s disastrous new opera Miss Fortune, which of course went one better, by including a troupe of break dancers! But the overall sinking feeling was a common factor. When Calaf strikes the giant gong that magically appears from the sky (all very post-modern, get it?) he pretends to strike it while the sound comes from the pit. Making this highly theatrical gesture into a total gimmick and a disappointing start of many more wasted grand gestures. The final parade of the lifeless body of Liù on top of a dragon shaped carriage across the stage as Turandot and Calaf finally kiss inside a garden structure is both insensitive, verging on the simplistically repugnant.

The musical side of the evening was certainly world class with excellent performances by the orchestra and the chorus. With Iréne Theorin being one of the great Turandots of our times, she lived up to the expectation with some truly sterling singing and a much more subtle take on Act Three than usual, managing to inject a dose of humanity in Puccini’s bloodless heroine. Ailyn Pérez was a meltingly beautiful Liù with any dramatic opportunities that presented themselves grabbed with both hands. She vibrated with humanity so brightly that one forgot about everything else. Matthew Rose was a very strong Timur, despite his ridiculous costuming. Alfred Kim’s Calaf was very well done but lacking individuality. The horribly cringeworthy Ping Pong Pang caricature terror trio were given excellent performances by  Grant Doyle,  David Butt Philip and  Luis Gomes, again despite the mediocrity of the sung material.

In the field of art history the nasty imperialist background of Orientalism was given a shake up decades ago, thanks to Edward Said. Such unquestioning and purely illustrative productions of Turandot are displaying an unwillingness to acknowledge the problematic subject matter and the inbuilt misogyny of this opera. In the 21st century we are meant to have more meaningful and nuanced reactions to the grubby Imperialist past of Europe and to confront the artworks that glorified it. A more searching production that dissects the patronising “otherness” of both the score and the characters has to be the only viable solution to the crowd-pleaser lollipop that this work has become.

ROH Turandot List

The Curtain call

Some tweets from the evening

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Ciciban meets Suor Angelica / Rosenblatt Recital, Sabina Cvilak + Iain Burnside / St John’s Smith Square – 7 December 2011

9 Dec

Another recital at St John Smith Square, another time I adored the architecture but still found the venue to lack in atmosphere. Something about the stark crisp whiteness and the very dry acoustic somehow is not giving me a warm fuzzy feeling. Cvilak thankfully had no issues filling the space with her beautiful and clearly projected voice.

She is a really interesting case, a singer with a very lyrical voice but with an almost chilly timbre. On the surface she seems to lack inbuilt warmth but she clearly knows how to coax emotion when the repertoire calls for it. Saw her take part in a wonderful performance with the London Symphony Orchestra under Gianandrea Noseda of Britten’s War Requiem and she was very expressive then but maybe mismatched to the demands of the piece …but still, a mile away from her tours around the world accompanying Andrea Bocelli.

The recital started with an inversion of the advertised running order of the three Slovenian songs. They were a very well chosen ice breaker and a characterful, whimsical choice too. Maybe I’m impressionable but, I’m always charmed when singers choose songs in their native tongue. Her approach was lyrical and very tender. Her unforced delivery was endearing and convincing. The two first songs were mournful and ever so slightly unhinged (the line :’ My father cursed and beat me, mother is crying over me, my family is ashamed of me, all fingers are pointing at me.‘ comes to mind). For me Ciciban was a great end to this section, a tender telling of the story of a little boy that gets approached by a bird that reminds him to wash his hands…never before I had a pedagogic lesson on hygiene for the under 5s, delivered with such sense of fun and panache from a concert platform, Julie Andrews would be very proud!

The next group of songs by Hauer based on poetry by Hölderlin, they were beautifully delivered and with impressionistic pianistic touches by Iain Burnside. But the best was still to come. The three Richard Strauss songs were a torrent or changing emotions, from hushed loving words to proclamatory fervour to the dreamy evocation of a ghostly lover. Again Burnside seemed to be in his element accompanying with great taste and allowing Cvilak to float phrases, creating the right atmosphere for these youthful efforts of the lovestruck young Richard. Those songs led to the interval leaving us all looking forward to the arias in the second half.

Somehow to sing at least one aria from La Bohème is something any lyric soprano tends to have a go in recital. Cvilak’s effort may have been short on actual vocal softness but the aria was infused with true understanding of the style, clear enunciation and a charming stage persona. The audience surely reacted to her interpretation and gave her one of the loudest applauses of the evening. Next up was Suor Angelica’s big aria, which I saw in the recent Covent Garden Il Trittico sang by Ermonella Jaho, who brought the house down with a searing interpretation that was immensely moving. Cvilak’s instrument is much cooler in temperament but still somehow managed to negotiate the aria without allowing it to turn twee and a routine effort. My only criticism would be her inadequate use of portamento to colour further the aria and give it a more touching effect.

The final Viennese operetta section was a delight, and actually a great fit for a mid week recital. It made us tap our toes and have fun with the happenings on stage. In particular the second aria (Du sollst der Keiser meiner Seele Sein) on top of all the fun, it also gave us the chance to hear a much deeper colour of her voice, as she used much her darker end of her tone to great effect. Which made me wish she had done the same with Suor Angelica, but maybe the temptation of a nun in white was too much to resist. Of course closing the programme with the Merry Widow was a total crowd pleaser and she really gave her all, fleshing out the character with nonchalance and sexiness with wonderfully clear, ringing high notes.

We were treated to two encores, both a logical step from the Puccini arias on the programme, her Io son l’umile ancella was passionate and at the same time desperate and resigned. A wonderful showy aria that any lyric soprano with a taste for verismo can create a huge impression, Cvilak did make a big splash again, staying on track with the required style and not resorting to the quite standard maudlin treatment. Her ‘Room with a view’ moment was surely full of freshness the aria requires but somehow did not have enough of a pleading quality. On Wednesday night she was lucky enough to have an accompanist of immense sensitivity and dexterity and also a well chosen, varied, entertaining repertoire. Can’t imagine a single person in the audience didn’t enjoy the recital. Looking forward to hopefully seeing her in fully staged opera in the coming years and what other roles she will tackle.

My first live Trittico tonight!

23 Sep

Dear readers the time has arrived! Il Trittico is on tonight and yours truly will be reporting back from it.

In the meantime enjoy the bizarre graphic collage…you may be interested to know that the ice ream machine pictured above is a Trittico Startronic Premium…which I thought it was far too appropriate for tonight’s over the top confection!

*Apologies for the obvious lack of nuns in the graphic, but have given you a lovely flowery wallpaper sample 😉

Creative team credits on the ROH website

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