Tag Archives: Royal Opera Covent Garden

The Violetta of Miss Pérez / Royal Opera – 6 May 2014

7 May

ROH TraviataGuilty as charged…I missed the last run of Traviata with Ailyn Pérez in 2011 and was reassured that greatness was achieved. Having seen her give her all in recitals, Turandot and Manon I didn’t hesitate to grab a ticket and be at her first night this time around. I didn’t intent to write a blog about it, but since I was totally bowled over with the central performance, here my brief account.

I can report a sensational performance built on great attention to the text taking place. She uttered every word with complete understanding of Violetta’s motives and fears. A deep sense of experience permeating every phrase. Her intense physical acting was perfectly married to some extraordinary vocal shading.

In Act Two her confrontation with Germont Père was dignified and had the requisite struggle with her self, her life choices and how polite society view her. Her Non Sapete hurled across the table at him as a protestation of defiance and hurt. She was aided by the fine acting of Simon Keenlyside who despite the fact he is missing the sheer heft of a true Verdi baritone avoided the clichés if portraying a monster and instead he was a family man blinded by his own small world to see Violetta’s raison d’être. Their confrontation was in keeping with the period aesthetic of Richard Eyre’s production but was imbued with personality and life experience. The trajectory of the character by Pérez was a complete life in 2 and a half hours. Her frivolous toasting of the ice sculpture in Act One with the resulting clinking noise causing a ripple of laughter was a great signifier of a Violetta that is playful and fun.

Her Act Two gambling scene progressing from false defiance to humiliation was beautifully acted. Her Alfredo, di questo core supported by a thin column of air the testament of a woman broken but despite it all filled with love and compassion. It was so brilliantly acted it left little doubt in our minds of her honesty. This great central performance was supported by the undeniable chemistry with Stephen Costello (it helps being married to Alfredo, obviously) his singing seemed at the start, nervous but as the night progressed kept improving. Unfortunately his acting was not as fluent and kept on seeming too stiff at times.

The Third Act was the tour de force one can hope. The logical conclusion of the trajectory of the character. The fall from grace, rejection of the church that provided succour and return to a love affair doomed by death. It was a gripping ride from her waking up in her bed to the death in Alfredo’s arms. So frequently this scene can be disappointing but her Addio del Passato was spine-tingling in its sadness, sung with huge emotional commitment and elegance. The attention to every word again to the fore. When reading Germont Père”s letter her excruciatingly dry cry emitted with her È tardi was a suitable flourish to this great performance. Worth mentioning the excellent contributions by the ROH’s young artists. Ashley Riches, Nadezhda Karyazina and David Butt Philip whose small character parts made a big impact.

As many others I have listened for years and years the incredibly exciting 1955 live recording with Maria Callas from La Scala. An archetypal example of what can be done with Verdi’s morality tale. Last night Ailyn Pérez touched the same level of greatness with a truly stunning performance.

The show on 20 May will be broadcast live online, DO NOT MISS IT! ROH Traviata List

Curtain call video

Some Tweets

No apologies

6 Apr

No apologiesIt is a subject I have been thinking about for a while. How the average opera fan and many people in management positions in the companies around the country have one common characteristic…being nearly apologetic every time they talk to the media and the people around them about the art form.

We seem at times embarrassed or unsure to tell the world that we love opera for all it’s faults and bastard hybridity. For years I was also one of those people when asked by colleagues about opera to throw in a joke and not challenge the stereotypes they had in their heads. Becoming essentially part of the joke perpetuated the popular view that opera is a non worthwhile pursuit and that it had nothing to offer to today’s audiences. By implication agreeing the acting was bad and that the singers resembled white whales. I would frequently catch myself lowering the volume of the car sound system when had to talk to a parking attendant or the such. You see, playing the current top 10 hits  carries very little embarrassment  but playing Cherubini’s Medea may somehow disturb the outside world…what a load of nonsense!

In today’s Observer, Kasper Holten, the Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House sent a letter that resonated with me with its totally unapologetic tone. A voice I only found in the last year or so. I stopped going along with and tolerating the unfounded derision that many hold for the field. As this blog largely encourages, I want them to give it a chance and trying to see it as a living art form that can be pure escapism but also has something to say about the complexity of living in 2014 and being able to transform ideas into something tangible.

Enough with the apologies and being always on the defensive we should instead be ready to fight preconceptions and be the face of the world of opera as the people who support it with our frequent attendance and also be the ones that make others realise that it may be a night out they may enjoy. Have given out recordings and videos to many friends and colleagues to gauge reactions and to see what they thought. Have convinced some to come to recitals and their sheer astonishment at the unamplified voice is always worth the effort. They may not be at the right time in their lives to have the time to spend attending frequently but at least we owe it to all the artists and everyone behind the scenes making our favourite pursuit happen, to smash media constructs that have them believe it is a world alien to them, an exclusive milieu they can never fit in.

Look around on Twitter and all around you before a performance, for every oleaginous, thick-skinned plutocrat there are four times more people from much more unexceptional backgrounds, students, pensioners, office workers, teachers, tourists. We are a diverse, passionate crowd and we are also the ultimate weapon against preconceptions of elitism. We can combat the popular beliefs by speaking from experience and extending a friendly hand to those who may want to join us. No more apologies and self-defeatism.

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

Glorious mess / Carmen / Royal Opera House – 6 January 2014

8 Jan

ROH CarmenLet’s get out of the way that I fervently dislike Francesca Zambello’s Carmen for the Royal Opera, it is the usual large opera house production, all baked terracotta walls, running water and pointless appearances by animals. It has not aged very well and the obvious lack of dramatic heft in the production is either made up by excellent casts that add their own personality to it or it just ponders on as a bunch of badly reproduced postcards of Goya portraits and tonnes of oversized Seville oranges (complete with orange tree, of course). The brusqueness of her use of the chorus and the unnecessary amount of stage noise touches on the vulgar. Particularly in the prelude before the opening of Act Two, the heavy stomping (as we know, clumsy stomping translates as passion) drowned out any delicacy left of Bizet’s luminous composition.

The leading couple of Anna Caterina Antonacci and Roberto Alagna must have so many hundreds of performances under their belts making one suspicious to get a prescriptive and superficial interpretation . But on the night the chemistry between the two of them was undeniable, Antonacci looked at him, charmed, arrogant, full of pity and fearless. He looked back with devotion and charm, with a certain vulnerability and intensity that was the perfect answer to Antonacci’s deeply felt and committed performance. Every one of her recitatives had meaning, every word was enunciated with exemplary clarity and style. The most telling was her warm delivery of the habanera, an all too frequently chance for singers to hoot like cheap prostitutes, she made it a beguiling study in characterisation with just enough suggestion and sex appeal. And of course warmly inflected vocalism that was parlando enough to make every one shut up and listen. A Carmen that did not dominated the stage with crudity and noise, but with suggestion, humour and charisma. All the men on stage are meant to fall instantly in love with her but also did the audience.

Alagna may have sounded sharp at the start but he eased himself into a very generous and well acted partner to the astounding prowess of our leading lady. The finale (despite the ham-fisted direction) was incredibly tense and well acted. Not in the league of Bieito’s incredibly vivid production but a good example of two great performers that can create magic out of directorial crumbs.

Special mention has to go to the supporting cast with Ashley Riches being a playful Moralès and Veronica Cagemi who despite being miscast she made all she could of Micaëla’s challenging aria in Act Three but unfortunately almost run out of steam during her short duet with Don José soon after. Unfortunately the Escamillo of Vito Priante had a total personality bypass, giving a terribly pallid stage impression regardless of the honestly ridiculous entrance on a horse. Judging by the reactions around me everyone paid attention to the horse but not to the singer.

The conducting of Daniel Oren  was so dreadful to make one wonder why is he being repeatedly booked by Covent Garden, if he is not generic he is outright bad. The tempi in the first half were wayward and sluggish, the transitions laboured and all the spark was made into a dull semblance of Iberica.

That Antonacci manages to pull off her arias without any major incidents was down to her trying to speed up proceedings with her singing…surely a dreadful day in the office for any singer if they have to modulate the performance by dragging the conductor to follow them. Her intense gesturing during Les tringles des sistres tintaient looked almost as a desperate attempt for Oren to notice that he had singers on the stage.

The orchestra overall sounded bored and any apparent gleam from the strings had turned into a muddle. To give him a modicum of credit after the interval things sped up a notch and felt less embarrassing to be hearing their output. But one has to wonder why the management of the ROH will go and book two well known singers only to give them a hard time with such uninspired and provincial conducting, surely there are many others that could conduct a reliable and fluid version of the score out there.ROH Carmen List

Some tweets from the night

Interminable sea of grey / Nabucco / Royal Opera House – 4 April 2013

11 Apr

ROH NabuccoIt has been a week and I can reassure you that Daniele Abbado’s new production of Nabucco is near instantly forgettable. The set being at most three tones of grey, the costumes being ill fitting, anonymous suits and dresses in near matching grey with small touches of muted blue and green.

Verdi’s score and the subject matter full of Babylonian excess and Hebrew strife being reduced to a dull, dusty cat litter tray with some standing stones made of MDF and textured to look like concrete, a pit of fire and some dull looking oversized mesh sculptures. Any visual references to Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin were not exploited the stele could have been for all we knew stand ins for a latent 2001 Kubrick vision. But even the terribly trite and monolithic set is no contest for the approximate movement and lack of dramatic engagement the direction brings to the work.
The individual characters are as hollow as the standing stones with the singers’ dramatic engagement having the depth of the shallow dusty grey sand. There seems to be no attempt into any relationships being built, love, passion, intrigue, patriotism go unexplored and scene after scene we are treated to a static park and bark style that seems so old fashioned and out of place. He curiously flattens the drama to a shallow uninvolving parade of bodies that lack purpose and impact. As the curtain rose to another inclined stage (directors love them, singers loathe them) complete with the vapours of dry ice, nothing much happened till the curtain came down 2 hours and 40 minutes later.
The use of the video screen, covering most of the background of the set was alternating from a simulation of outdoor light conditions and some dull re-enactments of stage action and aerial views of the set. The only moment the video projection added an iota of excitement was in the last section when the idols are smashed (flimsy chicken wire constructions in this production taken apart) and the projection turns all jumpy and liberated from having to reflect what is happening in front of it. The lack of use for such a prominent feature in this production was one of the many unanswered questions that Abbado’s production leaving behind. The video being a particular useless add on as instead of adding dynamism it just perpetuated the tedium by mirroring it.

Now if the singing had been universally great and world class this park and bark production could have had an aspect that could be enjoyed. Monastyrska, Pizzolato and Nucci being the only ones that added any nuance and power. The rest of the cast was having a bad night, particularly Kowaljow sounding dry and forced. Thank heavens Nicola Luisotti’s conducting was brisk if slightly too polite at times. He managed to coax a lot of sublime moments from the orchestra, especially some very fine cello playing in the Second Part. He alluded to the grandeur redolent in the score but sadly distinctly missing from this production.

Abbado allowed the chorus to take centre stage during their moment in the spotlight in Part Three and they gave us a spirited performance of Va Pensiero that finished with a floating pianissimo that our Abigaille would kill for.  Liudmyla Monastryrska surely has a very imposing stage presence and a wonderful top range but the notable lack of ability to float pianissimi and her odd sounding chest voice made her performance at times thrilling but also a series of disappointing stop starts. Her Anch’io dischiuso un giorno started in a fairly tentative fashion, totally not in tune with the trench being set on fire while she awkwardly tries to light it stiffly with a torch. The concluding cabaletta Salgo già del trono aurato was much better with her incisive enunciation and sharp delivery adding frisson and some shading to the character of this arrivistic young woman.

Leo Nucci has been for years the third choice baritone for most European opera houses and despite his impressive stamina (he is 70 after all) he did not excite me too much…unlike a bunch of Italians nearby that were screeching bravo every time he opened his mouth. But even the most charismatic, sweetly voiced singer would have trouble trying to radiate authority early on and mental frailty in the conclusion in this stolid production.
Marianna Pizzolato used her radiant tone to great effect for her prayer Oh dischiuso è il firmamento in Part Four and overall offered the most satisfying singing of the evening, despite the most unflattering wardrobe to grace the ROH since Robert Le Diable. Lets hope we will see her again soon in London and in bigger parts. Her deep chest voice, steady top and colourful tone were a source of joy.

This was one of those totally dry and dull productions that seem to create an instant argument against co-productions between major opera houses. I have no idea how it went down in Milan but can’t imagine the Italians would have warmed up to the lack of a central idea and purpose for this staging. This production did not tell us anything about Nabucco and the chest beating essays about exile in the programme had me beating my own chest on the way out  wondering why was Abbado allowed another go at Nabucco especially when his contribution was this dull and cold.

ROH Nabucco list

Anna Nicole

2 Mar

I’m putting out there a few of my thoughts after seeing the opera this evening, feel free to comment and share your views on it.

Why I went
When I booked my tickets back in October 2010 I did on the strength of my fantastic experience with Niobe Regina di Tebe which was brilliant and totally out of the usual fare at Covent Garden. A new commission was carrying the promise of something interesting and a possibility to see a work outside the usual canonical programming choices. Another important motivation was the cast, having Eva-Maria Westbroek and Gerald Finley committing themselves to the project left very little doubt in my mind that it would be worthwhile.
Let’s fast forward a few months and March 1st arrives and my turn has come! Today was the fifth performance of the work and my chance to experience it. Read a number of reviews in the last week and a half since the premiere and had seen far too many production shots to have a good idea what the opera was like!
The music writing
The friend that accompanied me found it accomplished but cold and superficial. Which got us talking on what avenue Turnage took with Anna Nicole. He went for a (well reported by this stage) bluesy, US jazz sound with echoes of Stravinsky in his US retirement. In many ways that could be seen as a safe choice verging on the superficial route. In my mind he could have gone a much more melodramatic route and give us a Traviata for the 21st century and I’m glad he didn’t do that. The writing is fairly small-scale in most passages with more focused crescendi around pivotal points in the plot. It allows the singing to shine through and in my mind the two absolute stars with the best material were Anna Nicole (Eva-Maria Westbroek) and old man Marshall (Alan Oke). They were given enough interaction with other characters and they both managed to create warm stage personas that could communicate to the audience the heart of the story.
Staging
I thought it was very effective and actually it felt less glitzy than the publicity shots, which was a very positive surprise. One major failure was the way they portrayed Wal-Mart (as the archetypal evil empire…all very original, I know), with the same old faceless workers trying to make ends meet with the minimum wage. The supposed ironic use of the uniform to show their unhappiness just felt too cliché and surely needed a lighter hand…maybe Richard Jones got carried away by the really didactic bit of libretto that accompanied the scene?

Acting
Westbroek, gave us an Anna Nicole that is playful, vulnerable, ignorant, dependant, questioning, loving, fun, compassionate. She had also captured some of Smith’s physical expressions and body characteristics that gave her a theatrical completeness. The way she carried herself in the Larry King interview scene was masterful, she was a lovable rogue, at once a junkie and at the same time a girl with dreams and an acute love of dogs *giggle*. All very Anna Nicole and surely a great shorthand for Smith’s public persona. The way she was personified I felt compassion and even protective of her and never thought she was becoming a monstrous caricature, which in my eyes is a major achievement.

The od(bv)ious elephant in the room
The Libretto, Richard Thomas came up with a million and one descriptions of breasts which it momentarily amused but quickly seemed overwrought and silly. Another major misstep were the ariettas written for Virgie, Anna Nicole’s mother (Susan Bickley), a lot of the reviews I have read praise her as the moral centre to this tale of celebrity excess. I have to disagree, most of the lines she was given were just preachy and trite. Especially at the close of Act One her description of the relationship of men and women was going to such an extreme to make it plain show-offish gibberish, was Thomas just trying too hard to shock with adding cum bucket in the libretto? It did not shock me, it just made me question his motives and the more I think the less I trust his heart, with this character, was in the right place. Also another mention that was really pointless and just there for effect was in Finlay’s “Hollywood” moment in the Second Act where he mentions her lesbian PA and how Anna Nicole was riding her…it just seemed such an easy way to a gag that made it pointless and with an unwelcome hint of misogyny. Another issue for me was in the,otherwise, truly effective finale when he made Anna Nicole utter America you whore, which was just a horribly predictable and cliché response to the shuttering of the American dream. For me it ruined a couple of minutes of her monologue before the end which was a true shame, as Eva-Maria was truly remarkable as she is dying in a maelstrom of cameras recording her last moments.

In Conclusion
Anna Nicole may not be revolutionary theatrically or musically but is an interesting addition to the annals of contemporary opera. It was thrilling to watch, despite it’s -mainly- textual failings. The story is coming through loud and clear and the space for character development is there and all it needs is a really good cast to sympathise with the material and bring it to life. The Royal Opera has indeed endowed it’s first outing with a wonderful cast that is both inspirational and starry. For me the greatest achievement of the night was Eva-Maria giving a heart-felt performance with true empathy and understanding. I really hope that we will see her more and more in London in the coming years as she is a truly interesting singer with a great voice and magnetic presence. Of course the big overall question is how much will the work suffer in the hands of a less charismatic lead? I do think a less engaging soprano will expose the numerous shortcomings of the libretto. Let’s hope that if the production is sold to another company or when it returns to the Royal Opera they will iron out some of the clunky dialogue and crass references that have no place in it and do actually jar with the music.

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