Tag Archives: Royal Opera House 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

Shimmering Strauss / Capriccio / Royal Opera House – 21 July 2013

29 Jul

CapriccioIt has been a week and it is maybe too late to write a long and detailed account but I could not pass the opportunity to write about a truly wonderful evening with one of the greatest Strauss singers of our times. Renée Fleming all too infrequently graces the stage of the Royal Opera House and those two concert performances of Capriccio were the hot ticket of the season. Judging from the people around us quite a few of them were there to tell their friends about it than to watch and be immersed in Strauss’s last opera. Particularly the gentleman next  to me spend most of the two and a half hours staring at his watch , tossing and turning and biting his nails. Something that thankfully happens rarely.

Capriccio like a few of his operas has a long climb over dense recitativi that may seem taxing but I see them as a minor trial for the glorious final pay off. His melodic gift and the way he put together 18th century French motifs with his usual glowing orchestration is such a genuinely sensual experience that cannot be replicated be listening to any recording. The Royal Opera House orchestra was on great form and under Andrew Davis they delivered a mellifluous account of the score, short maybe on a touch of largesse but it was enveloping and luxurious. Due to the dialectic nature of the work not having the staging wasn’t too damaging as it allowed full concentration to the words and music. And that being the main philosophical issue concerning the stage action it cannot possibly be a bad thing.

The cast with the exception of Fleming, Skovhus, Banks and Plaza were using scores but most managed to convey the essence of their character. Particularly the little petulant put downs between Andrew Staples and Christian Gerhaher were delicious and brought out the controlled hilarity of the libretto. Fleming and Skovhus were in a level of their own, bouncing off each other and having a complete command of the stage and projecting strong personalities throughout. Particularly Fleming in her silver Vivienne Westwood dress was exuding finesse and enough upper class deportment to convince, while having a knowing glint in the eye.

Her sublime final monologue was a huge climactic pay off and it was definitely worth the two-hour wait. The uncertainty filled conclusion was rendered in glowing sotto voce with unmistakable depth of feeling. Every gesture a small way in to her inner thoughts, understated and yet impossible for one to take their eyes off her. The star quality of the main heroine in a Strauss opera is for me as part of the experience as the work itself. Without the inner glow and stage experience it can render the work a parody and Strauss’s calculated built ups into dull plateaus. Her final choice between music or text or one of her either suitors Olivier or Flamand and her final indecision was beautifully acted as she picked up the music and the words in separate pieces of paper and tossed the words and longingly looked at the music before she left it on the chair and finished off the scene. We were none the wiser but at heart we hoped that Flamand and her love of his setting for the sonnet won her over.

There were a couple of weak links in the cast but all could be brushed aside at the sight and sound of Fleming who won hearts and minds and the eruption of applause made no secret how much we appreciated all she offered.

The stage was rigged for recording so I do wonder if this performance will be released any time in the future. There is already a recording and DVD with her signing the role so not idea if there is a market for another one. But time will tell.

The Curtain Call

Some Tweets

Capriccio list

Scotland 0 – Rossini 1 / La Donna Del Lago / Royal Opera House – 27 May 2013

2 Jun

ROH DonnaLa Donna Del Lago is the opera that comes round every couple of decades when a performer can command its staging. In the 1980s it was June Anderson who sang the role and now Joyce Didonato has been the compelling Elena of our times that has managed to sing the part since 2010 in Geneva, Paris, Milan and now good ol’ Covent Garden. This was meant to be a co-production with La Scala and the Opéra but as the artistic director of the Royal Opera deemed it a disaster area and commissioned a new production (with a limited budget) by John Fulljames. The awful chain mail costumes that weighed down the singers may have gone, but what replaced them?

Fulljames took the second default setting of a contemporary opera director, after the 1950s…to set the piece in the era it was written. Not too silly a suggestion trying to take away any medievalism left in the work and make it look more polished. The set resembling a gentlemens club covered in wood panelling and complete with four small balconies on the sides for the onstage band to play from. The lady of the lake becomes an object of posh scientific fascination as Edinburgh’s high society (the chorus) dressed in tails and top hats peruse her in a glass case accompanied by cases containing a model boat and another one with the regalia of Scotland. And then the naffest thing happens since the invention of time travelling productions…Walter Scott and Rossini show up on stage and remain on for the duration.

Repurposing the parts of Albina as Rossini and Serano as Walter Scott did not propel much the story it just seemed to have been his way to demonstrate he really had a solid concept behind the show. The main irritation from having Rosini and Scott on stage was their use as decorative additions in the extremities of the stage pictures adding very little interest and mainly spending the evening opening the panelling centre stage to reveal the revolving staircase that stood in for Elena’s house. And later on, the king’s palace. It is never made clear how the scientific specimen of La Donna gets reanimated, was this some secret knowledge society that had cryogenically preserved her, only to wake her up or were we just seeing a miracle making our leading lady mobile and singing? If you want to propose a thesis about the work’s very nature better work out the transitions in a smoother fashion.

Having a performer of Joyce DiDonato’s calibre treated like the famous singing fish must be immensely frustrating for such a physical actress. Thankfully when she comes out of the dreaded case she inhabited the role with such depth of feeling and ownership it was simply ravishing. The second victim of this production was Daniela Barcellona who was costumed in the frumpiest travesti way possible…ill fitting costume, ugly make up, terrible wig. If we need to be convinced she is a man there are simpler more elegant ways to achieve it. Thankfully a truly spectacular singer like her sang through this crap to deliver round tone, killer chest register and staggering volume alongside her measured acting.

Colin Lee was turned into a ridiculous comic book character complete with silly wig and costumed for a provincial production of Norma. All of his warriors were equally ridiculously costumed to drive home the obvious distinction between the townies and the highlanders, it was simplistic as it was crude. Flórez clearly must be good at saying no to the wig department as he was wearing his own hair and looked all the better for it. Mind you he was not spared a comically oversized crown that wouldn’t look out of place as a stripper’s prop and of course the final appearance as the king with acres of imitated ermine and bright tartan making him look like a cushion ready to match the curtains of the palace. His singing was unfailingly elegant but somehow he was outshone by most of his co-stars, notably Colin Lee who was much louder and much more attractively voiced on the night.

The one moment in the first Act I lost total faith in the direction (aside from the inexplicable reanimation of the cased heroine) was the dreadful rape scene which was a largely pointless addition and made no sense in 2013 where we do not need to see sexual violence portrayed as entertainment especially when the story does not need such diversions. It felt gratuitous and the deafening silence in the auditorium signified that I was not the only one to be appalled by this thoughtless addition. Fulljames deserves the scorn he receives on this aspect as it was utterly indefensible.

The chorus delivered some top class singing with very impressive volume and well drilled choreography. A show like this makes a big asset of the chorus and creates the only ebb and flow in a rather tension-free Rosinian romp. So credit to them and the chorus master for adding excitement and fabulous support to the soloists. The orchestra put in some juicy playing despite the very stop/start conducting for my liking. Mariotti must have ironed out a lot of problems that were reported from earlier in the run but somehow he doesn’t seem to grasp the ideal of a sinuous bel canto line for the singers and the orchestra.

If you read my ramblings from time to time you will know by now how much I enjoy Joyce DiDonato’s singing, She may not have the most colourful, most enchanting instrument on the planet but her deployment of her gift is so generous and exciting it is impossible not to be won over. The way she floated Rossini’s high lying phrases all night with such robust support was the stuff of legends.

Her command of the stage was magisterial and the final 20 minutes possibly amongst the best live singing I have heard in my life so far. From when she utters Tanti Affeti in the most delicious hushed pianissimo to the final felicità she gave an unrivaled lesson on elegant use of legato for expressive means, sheer glamour and utter triumph at the top of the cabaletta. A more exuberant expression of on stage happiness is surely difficult to come by.

This opera may not be even in my top 20 operas but a stunning performance of such virtuosity elevates it to an evening never to be forgotten. Yes everyone, I am as smitten with Joyce as I have ever been and cannot wait to see her repeat this magic on the last show on the 11th of June. The performance of the 27th was streamed live in cinemas so expect it in your Christmas stocking for 2014 in Blu-ray and DVD…it will be worth the wait. An additional joy was that Janet Baker was in the audience and congratulated Joyce after the curtain fell.

Some tweets from the evening

ROH Donna List

Exceptional polish / Die Zauberflöte / Royal Opera House – 7 May 2013

13 May

ROH FluteIt has been a bit of a crazy week but really have to put down in writing how good the performance of the Magic Flute really was. McVicar’s decade old production may be very short on the crowd pleasing spectacle the work is calling for and is particularly cumbersome in its design sensibility. But all was forgotten because of some truly world class singing by the largely British cast.

Simon Keenlyside who originated the role of Pappageno on the first staging was a ball of silly antics and sung with great finesse. Andrew Staples gave us a very youthful Tamino with great evenness of tone and winning sensibility, Albina Shagimuratova was a very confident Queen of the Night, thundering in and nailing the treacherous coloratura with unexpected transparency and accuracy. Susana Gaspar acted with brio but her Pappagena never quite got off the ground as the direction and costuming created a character apart that doesn’t quite mingle harmoniously with the rest of the cast. But the night ultimately belonged to the marvellous Pamina of Sophie Bevan, singing a gleaming account of the part with radiant, plush sound and great charm. There is no greater acclaim for a singer singing this part than to radiate happiness and to make the auditorium fall in love with her. Bevan put a huge smile on our faces every time she was on stage, even adding to it by recovering rather nicely from a chair fall and incorporating it in her acting.

The conducting by Julia Jones may have been largely utilitarian and with little attempt at conjuring Mozart’s magical glow. All the largely humdrum playing from the pit  could not mask how truly beautiful the singing was, reminding us all how a really bouncy cast can transform even a clinical account into something memorable. It was a shame this second cast only had three performances to prove their worth but was very pleased to hear satisfied punters all the way down from the Amphitheatre. I hope that we will see more frequently casts of this quality that don’t seem to have been put together because they can number lots of international names just for the sake of it. The Brits in the cast acquitted themselves so well it makes some of the casting decision frequently made at Covent Garden seem a little bit strange. More please!

ROH Flute List

Curtain call video

Some Tweets from the evening

Shoot the doppelgänger / Eugene Onegin / Royal Opera House – 11 February 2013

15 Feb

ROH OneginIt was a catalogue of misfortunes that added to an overall uneven and at times unjustifiably flat performance of Yevgeny Onegin (the Royal Opera not too keen to use that title it seems). The non operational surtitles during the first half was not the best advert for the ROH but surely they have well practised tannoy apologies and they delivered it twice to the amusement of everyone occupying the cheap seats. Glad to report a pensioner’s riot and occupation of the Amphitheatre was averted at the last minute and a few photocopies of the synopsis later.

Let me start from the positives, the set and costumes were rather elegant. The set comprises a four doored frontage is turn of the century plasterwork and mouldings. All in an off white colour heavily influenced by Vilhelm Hammershøi‘s melancholic interiors and the backdrops behind were modelled on Gerhard Richter‘s painfully beautiful and trendy abstracted photorealism rendered in video animation. Visually it was a potent mix that had an equal amount of suggestion and representation. The respectively red and blue palette used for Tatyana and Yevgeny creating a stark contrast against the rest of the colour choices (pistachio for Olga, beige and powder blue for Lensky, black for the chorus) and making them pop. The set was particularly successful as a setting when the doors closed and the front of the stage became surprisingly intimate. But somehow the parallel nature of the set made it look like something designed for Holten’s previous employer, the Royal Danish Opera, where they do scene changes by moving sets sideways. Spent most of the evening expecting the set to slide sideways, but to no avail since the ROH does not have such a facility the set stayed put. With Madame Larina’s ballroom looking as wide as a goods lift it barely inspired. Things did get better in the last act when Prince Gremin’s ballroom extended to a further room doubling the space and the perspectival play was very effective coupled with some well done choreography.

Unfortunately the orchestra under Robin Ticciati did not seem to find its way through the lyrical score, with notable lack of balance at times and off pacing. Particularly the letter scene and the finale stood out too much with the orchestra playing too loudly and in total contrast to the earlier slack tempi that sent many a pensioner to sleep.

The insurmountable obstacle that stops me from loving this interpretation is Holten’s use of doppelgänger dancers of their young selves  idea for Tatyana and Yevgeny, it is both inconsistent (they only appear in a handful of scenes) and it is distracting that the singers acknowledge their presence. Had they been treated as memories and thus remained untouchable it may have worked. In this case it seemed like the director lost confidence in the singers to express emotion through their acting and needed the use of two dancers to mime instead. Another thought that passed my mind was the possibility that the Director walked into the rehearsal room and thought ‘oh my, they both look too old for the characters’ and brought in the dancers to embody them in Act One.

The doppelgänger idea falls totally flat in the letter scene where Stoyanova is left just pacing on the stage while the “young Tatyana” rithed and contorted her way, draped herself on the chair and just sucked out the oxygen from such an accomplished singer, especially when she sang with such assurance and feeling.

Another terrible example was the duel between Lensky and Yevgeny, with the dancer getting possession of the gun while Keenlyside looks on and mirrors his movements pointlessly. The apogee of this emptiness in the staging comes when the dancer actually pulls the trigger. It saps all the energy from this macho confrontation scene and renders it weak and almost incidental. You can imagine what must be going through Keenlyside’s head when he is being marginalised to such a degree during such a crucial scene. He did do his best but unfortunately I paid more attention to the branch that Breslik carried in for the duel, than the singers.

Overall the singing was from very good to excellent, Keenlyside admittedly took a while to warm up but he was absolutely wonderful in the last Act. Stoyanova was wonderfully warm and paid unique attention to the libretto, also moved with elegance and when left to act (like in the last scene, where the doppelgänger has gone) she was captivating to watch. Peter Rose’s Gremin was as imperious as one would expect but also brought a vulnerability that made him much more believable than usual. Diana Montague, always a classy singer, delivered stage charisma in spades in the largely thankless role of Madame Larina. The audience’s favourite was Pavol Breslik who did sing with vim and longing and we all felt sorry for having to endure being dead on the ground for the last forty or so minutes. A ludicrous directorial decision that again added very little to the story and just made it much more difficult for him and his colleagues, who had to avoid stepping on him on a number of occasions. To be honest none of the clutter that made the front of the stage, from Tatyana’s strewn books to the harvested bunches of wheat, to the dead body ever got cleared. It was another comment on memory, but my goodness it made for sloppy looking staging and was rather too obvious.

It is beyond me why directors find Onegin such a fertile ground for silly experiments. Tchaikovsky’s opera couldn’t be more straightforward and the fact he entrusted its première to the students of the Conservatoire in Moscow makes that evident. I presume Holten thinks he has added another layer of interpretation, with his direction focusing on the nature of memory and looking back in retrospect with regret. Unfortunately in this case all he added was a distancing device that told us surprisingly little that is not already in the score. Seeing it two days after Konwitschny’s  Traviata and after the very successful Opera Holland Park production last summer it proved to be an evening of style over substance. This production did not seem to be happy to either go avant garde and offer a different concept or to be traditional. It occupied a middle ground that was neither very interesting or to the benefit of the material.

ROH Onegin list

 

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]

What did Kasper say? / In Conversation / Clore Studio, Royal Opera House – 12 October 2012

13 Oct

Usually I couldn’t care for the over-priced insight events at the Royal Opera but this time having the chance to see what the fairly interview shy new Director of Opera had to say about his first year at Covent Garden was alluring. I can happily report that it was worth it, read on if you want to know what was said.

From the outset his enthusiasm for opera and directing was evident. He talked about his childhood and how initially he got hooked on it by going to a visit with a tutor at age 9 to see Carmen. He recalled how he was blown away by the experience. A particularly funny episode was his retelling of organising a Ring cycle from the age of 13-16 in a LEGO constructed theatre, making the whole family watch it. He even managed to write a letter to the director of the opera house and the minister of culture to ask why one had to be 18 in order to take advantage of the young people discount scheme. They changed the policy so the precocious 13 year old Kasper could buy cheaper tickets with his pocket money.

The talk was indispersed with three excerpts from his productions in Copenhagen of The Ring, Nielsen’s Maskarade and Die tote Stadt.

Edward Seckerson asked him about the tension between being a creative force and having to do a lot of admin as part of his job at Covent Garden. Holten mused that his life has possibly come full circle as he comes from a family of financiers (his mother having been the Governor of the Bank of Denmark) he was expecting to go into banking but instead chose the life in the theatre. He seemed to be very pragmatic that the two productions a year that he is allowed by his contract to direct have an impact on his deputy and PA but it seems he would not want a job that would not allow him to direct in House and out.

He was asked whether he would compromise rehearsal time in order to accommodate big stars like Kaufmann.  His response was a bit roundabout, bordering on the meandering but he seemed unhappy to create a precedent by allowing big names to show up a couple of weeks before a show starts. He did make the distinction between singers that grow in rehearsal and others who do not find it as stimulating. But he mentioned that the camaraderie that develops during a full rehearsal period is an essential part of the mix for an as good a performance as possible. But he concluded that some smart administrative decisions could see them programme big names for productions that don’t need a lengthy period of rehearsals.

On the subject of commissioning new work and allowing the national composers emerge, in the mould of Poul Ruders in Copenhagen where three operas where staged (most notably A Handmaid’s Tale). He went to great lengths to point out that for him Covent Garden is not a national opera house but an international one and even though Thomas Adès is writing a new work for the main stage he wants composers from all over the world to have an equal chance to stage a major project with the Royal Opera. He did mention the great work ENO does with new music and commissions. He went to lengths to point out that the House would not be the right place for a young composer to write their first opera (he quipped that the first one is usually not very good) he wanted composers with a developed voice and some stage experience.

On the subject of modern/traditional productions he thought the distinction was redundant and that he had directed in both idioms, led by the work itself. He was warned that London audiences are too conservative and would not accept modern productions and he responded that in his experience the audience is discerning but expects good storytelling/a clear narrative. As he exclaimed this is after all the country of Shakespeare and BBC drama. He wants opera to be relevant (not in a jeans and trainers way) but to talk about life as it is. Emphasising that the companies have to believe in the greatness of the material and the extraordinary nature of the artistry required to promote the art form.  He contemned Regietheater as a creative dead and ridden with clichés (to the chagrin of the rather elderly audience). The conversation wandered to Stefan Herheim and he confirmed that his predecessor had engaged him for the 2013 season for a Verdi opera (the rumours suggest Les Vespres Siciliennes), he expressed his admiration for him and his very physical, dramatic productions. He also made a point about La Donna del Lago that he scrapped the Lluis Pasqual directed co-produced production with La Scala and the Opéra when he realised that it was not a good one. And he said that such a great cast (Didonato/Flórez/Barcellona) deserved a new production and he’d rather spend the small budget on it than spend it on promoting a production that was fundamentally unsuitable for the piece (we all remember the ludicrous chain mail costumes). Boasting that his upcoming Onegin and DDL had the smaller budgets in Royal Opera’s history but hoping they would not seem cheap to the audiences.

On the subject of the cinema broadcasts and live online relays (prompted by two audience members questions) he mentioned how he originally (when the Met HD series started) did not believe that opera in the cinema would work but was happy to be proven wrong. He said that it was imperative for the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet to have a worldwide presence in cinemas and that wherever possible they would like to challenge the exclusivity on venues by the Met. As for online streaming he thought the costs involved are prohibitive due to the low levels of public subsidy (in comparison to Central Europe), but he’s hoping to work more with The Space like they did for Les Troyens.

He mentioned that a major part of his decision to move to Covent Garden was working with maestro Pappano, who he thought had the most incredible curiosity and musicality, making him possibly the best musical director in any of the major opera houses. He also made clear that for him a sense of personality in the programming was important despite the fact that is not always possible due to casting restrictions. Exclaimed how courage was very important and not playing it safe all the time, offering as an example his work on staging Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger in the coming seasons. Also defended the long runs of “classics” like Traviata, Tosca and Bohème as a good way to bring new audiences in. Quoting that 30% of the audience for La Traviata were new to the House.

He kept on repeating how important it was for him to have more affordable tickets and how aware he was that the audience in the House is not as representative of London’s overall diversity and vitality. Also seemed to be keenly aware that the online presence and booking system of the ROH still needs work but he was confident the investment would pay off.

The Baroque question

Unfortunately I did not get the chance to ask my main question of their deplorable use of their young artists or about the significant lack of British talent for the juiciest parts, but instead managed to approach him after the talk to enquire about the lack of baroque opera from the main stage.

His response was that he was aware of that gap and he had conversations with the rest of the management but was worried that maybe the auditorium is too big for a satisfactory experience. Mentioning  that ENO and Glyndebourne having a great record at presenting this repertoire in the UK. When I responded with how extraordinary was Niobe Regina di Tebe and if he had the chance to see it. He responded that he hadn’t experienced it for himself but was aware it had troubles selling tickets and that any such projects will need a period instrument specialist orchestra. So in other ways it means that Covent Garden in its current state will not produce any more baroque opera for the Main Stage, which is deeply regrettable in my view. Had I  had the time I would have mentioned the obvious flaws of his thinking around baroque, as the ENO has a larger auditorium than the ROH and also they use their in house orchestra with mainly modern instruments as do the other regional companies.

Overall what came through from the talk was his vibrancy and will to succeed in the role but also a keen sense to be realistic about what can be achieved at the Royal Opera. Left me feeling positive about the future of the House and its programming despite its obvious lack of will to stage baroque, the very starting point of the illustrious art it promotes.

Some excerpts from the talk will be circulated by the Royal Opera in the coming weeks will try to link to them here so you get a more direct sense of the talk.

An old fashioned, plush affair / Otello / Royal Opera House – 21 July 2012

26 Jul

This production maybe be inspired by old master paintings with its lush palette of Venetian reds and greens to make Tintoretto envious, but the dodgy costumes are more in the Blackadder league and the “blackening” of our leading man a throwback to the 1950s. The aspirations are there but the execution is showing its age rather obviously. Cue in crowd scenes, fire torches, tenors arriving on a  Helepolis, painted backdrops inspired by old masters and naturalistic lighting (for the most part).
This is billed as a uber traditional production, but in all honesty it is just conventional and largely predictable. It is the 21st century and we have all moved on from expecting a close simulation of reality to make staged opera exciting. A lighter touch and more ideas are appreciated, but unfortunately Moshinsky shows all the arrogance of today’s most extreme directors but without any ideas informing his embroidered brocade and pillar heavy production. One can only go beyond such a set up with an excellent cast that can reanimate this fossilised relic, which is only useful as memento of the legendary original cast and conductor (Domingo+Ricciarelli+Díaz+Kleiber).

Antonenko has an enviable capacity to sing forward and with incredible propulsion. I could hear some sharp intakes of breath in the audience when he made his big entrance with a rock steady A that must have peeled off some paint from the ceiling. His acting was on par with his vocal production, creating a butch, heavily chiselled masculinity. The only negative was that his voice seems to have a big break in the passaggio,  that was particularly disappointing when he was in conversation with Iago and Desdemona creating a raspy, almost hushed, covered tone.

Gallo is and remains more of a buffo baritone, he does lack the vocal heft and darkness to pull off Iago. It was truly unimaginative of the Royal Opera to book him again for this production five years on. He is a fine singer but dramatic roles are totally beyond his camp stage presence and lighter, brighter voice.

Anja Harteros was the absolute highlight of the evening. With immense stage charisma and poise. Her sound was seamless and beautifully propelled across the auditorium. Her delivery at the more lyrical passages was like crushing waves of soft, slow vibrato allowing her to utter the sweetest phrases and the most dramatic passages with equal success. The attention to text and her intense, forceful acting created a much less soft and victimised Desdemona. She was a woman in the middle of a maelstrom but very much with her dignity intact. For any dramatic soprano the final scena containing The Willow Song is a dream come true. A great way to deploy limpid phrasing with shapely melodic flourishes and great acting. I can happily say that Harteros gave us true golden age singing with sincere acting and sinuous vocal production from the top of her range to the very lowest passages. She was dreamy and vulnerable, beautiful and insightful. A mesmerising presence that will remain unforgettable.

Antonio Poli fresh from winning Operalia gave a sweet-voiced and nuanced performance as Cassio. A young artist to watch out for.

Hanna Hipp moved on from her beautiful contribution to Les Troyens and a bubbly addition to Il viaggio a Reims and gave us a very earthy Emilia that added the right amount of alarm during Act Four. A brilliant counterbalance to Harteros and her much more internalised approach for the final scene. Her versatility and stage presence give us great hopes for what she may do in the future, when bigger roles are entrusted to her.

The conducting was of a very high standard, with the drama and the tenderness coming through. The opening storm being augmented with pyrotechnic thuds high above the flytower. Also the dispersed brass, creating an enticing soundscape of the Venetian fleet arriving in Act Three which was very elegant and involving. Unfortunately the sound from the back of the Balcony is not exactly the best but the orchestra and chorus have to be commented for being so professional and alternatively performing Otello with Les Troyens with vitality and gusto. A mention has to be made for the audience on the night which was the quietest I’ve heard there in a long while. Maybe having a rare appearance by Harteros and Antonenko’s super loud Otello took their mind away from munching sweets and having chats with their friends…result!

It was an amazing evening, sadly  spoiled by a dull and unimaginative production from the 80s that barely deserves a revival. There are rumours that this was the last hurrah to this production which is a relief.  The performance was recorded for later broadcast on BBC Radio 3, so look out for it around September and hopefully the sound will convey some of the magic of the evening.

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

Mr Fate and his amazing thunder coat / Miss Fortune / Royal Opera House, Covent Garden – 28 March 2012

31 Mar

You have by now read the numerous reviews and unsurprisingly 99% of critics and bloggers had been to put it politely, underwhelmed by what was on offer by Miss Fortune.

I had no intention of seeing it after being burned last year by Nico Muhly’s Two Boys and especially after reading the wall to wall bad reviews. But getting an Orchestra Stalls ticket for £15 was an opportunity I couldn’t pass by.

The overwhelming feeling is of a work that did not come together, an inherent disparity between, word, music, movement, direction and stage design. As if Judith Weir was trying to tick too many boxes and failed to make them work as a whole.The camp utterances of a counter-tenor portraying Fate (dressed in the equivalent of a house coat covered in a thunderbolt print) varied from the annoying to the surplus to requirement. If she was really attempting humour or satire it clearly did not come through.

The staging was a faceless mush of an aerofoil trapezoid shape that was moving to different positions for scene changes (being projected on to add texture), another (red slatted this time) hinged  trapezoid  containing LED lighting within. The most extravagant prop, the exploding kebab van for Hassan was a pure folly that got used for around 10 minutes of stage time, only to be fire-bombed in the end…it’s typical of the flat nature of the work that I was more fascinated, by how the van was lowered down from the fly tower and the cables disengaged from it after landing, than Hassan’s singing about his love for the van and leaving Miss Fortune behind while he went supply shopping.  This was supposed to be set in the 21st century and when I explained the plot to a colleague, she exclaimed how old-fashioned was the choice of Miss Fortune being surrounded by machinists in a textile factory. How about a more contemporary occupation in the service section, a fast food restaurant or something a bit more recognisable for the audience? Those kind of simplistic misfires are indicative of the unfortunate (what a pun, hey?) dramatically inert staging that added very little contemporary flavour than a regie director could muster with *cough* Rusalka. Maybe Weir and Shi-Zheng should have hooked up with Mary Portas’ Kinky Knickers and add a bit more pizzaz!

An inexplicable choice was why did Miss Fortune herself sing all the way from a forte to a near fortissimo throughout the piece. Emma Bell was just made to scream her way through the part with very little chance for articulation and allowance for feeling to penetrate the strident melodic line. The dance troupe (Soul Mavericks) were entertaining through out…but at the same time nothing like a touch of racial stereotyping by appointing black dancers as the source of menace to the urban environment that Miss Fortune was thrown into. Their performance was dedicated but somehow can’t see where in the grand scheme of things they were supposed to belong. The feeling that this was a very late addition came to mind at their every appearance.

This opera unfortunately was a total, if inoffensive, snooze to watch all the way through. If it wasn’t for the beautifully crisp playing by the orchestra (which actually sounded like a different orchestra since the recent dull performance of Don Giovanni). A huge thank you to all the orchestral players and the beaming Jacques Imbrailo who lit up the auditorium with his beautiful bright voice, much more than the preceding exploding kebab van.

I really can not understand how this lukewarm, pretty flat piece made it to the main stage of the Royal Opera House, it would have benefited by a new staging, some work on the libretto and the more intimate surroundings of the Linbury Studio (or the unthinkable…an industrial space in East London) with its smaller scale it would have been a better receptacle for Weir’s fluent and frequently beautiful score. Good luck to St Louis and their new staging of the work in 2013.

Below is a video of some of the stage action by the video designers, it will give you a taste for the look and movement of the staging and one of Kasper Holten introducing it to the unsuspecting punters.

Read more

Jessica Duchen’s post on Miss Fortune

Mark Berry’s blog post on Miss Fortune

John Allison’s review published by The Telegraph

Fiona Maddocks’ review for The Observer

%d bloggers like this: