Tag Archives: Royal Opera House

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

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

Calm and blast / Celso Albelo / Rosenblatt Recital Series / Wigmore Hall – 16 September 2013

26 Sep

Celso AlbeloAlongside the opening of the new opera season at London’s Houses comes the opening of the season for the Rosenblatt Recital Series that has been running since 2000. A good spotting ground for up and coming international talent.

I approached the evening with a slight trepidation as my last live experience of him was the 2011 La Sonnambula at the Royal Opera House, his Elvino was the main disappointment of that evening, clearly having a difficult night, looking out of sorts in both style and vocal output.

For this recital the two halves were mainly divided by temperament which made for a slightly odd and too homogeneous programming. But one particular saving grace of this recital series is allowing the singers to make personal choices of songs and arias that reflect their interests and frequently in their native language, allowing them to show a different side from the expected standard rep.

Albelo listAlbelo’s delivery of the brooding at times near lacrimose material in his native tongue was beautifully engaging. His reserved stage personality well in tune with the material. The attention to the words and the soft caress of the melody was a great start and brought out a side to his interpretive capability I hadn’t seen before.

His Pampamapa (Song of the trail) was a great example of his ability to weave the thread of a story with simple means and to keep the audience captivated. His colourful rendition of a meditation on a love affairs that has gone wrong was affecting and not over dramatic. Revealing a sensitive side to our preconceptions of what a lyric tenor is expected to sing in recital. In Ya me voy a retirar (I’m going to go away) he brought a broken simplicity and expressive economy full of  tenderness. Hi El sampedrino (The herdsman) was a meditation on bitterness after the end of a love affair.  The last item of the first half Besos en mis suenos (Kisses in my dreams) was a strange melange of MOR melody and light vocalism that reminded me a musical backdrop for an MGM musical from the 1940s. Breaking a bit the spell cast from all the previous songs.

After the interval things got much more vibrant to maybe the expense of subtlety (a danger with lyric tenors oi).

The first (very loud) song Deten tu lado paso (Don’t take another step) was the exact opposite of all the songs of the first half, the subtlety replaced with volume and overarching ardency.

But maybe the most musically futile and overall problematic number was the solo piano Danza de los Nanigos (Dance of the Negroes) which except for a break for the singer offered very little to the overall recital and the very title of it in the programme made me cringe.

The arias from the Donizetti operas were a great display of his bright tone and firm delivery. Particularly his rendition of Spirto gentil was the crowning achievement of the evening and it’s wonderful to have a video released by the Rosenblatt Recitals organisers for posterity. It was exactly one would wish for, full bloodied Italianate singing with clarity of phrasing and a seamless legato.

His finale with La donna e mobile was a bit of chore for me after having seen a performance of Rigoletto two days earlier and was not quite convinced that he had the arrogance and weaselly malice one needs to be a convincing Duke of Mantua. But it definitely ticked a big box for the fans in the audience.

His two encores were Francesco Cilea’s È la solita storia del pastore  (Act II L’arlesiana) and a short version of  Donizetti’s  Ah mes amis (Act I La Fille du Régiment) which made a suitably sparkly end to the evening and continues a Roseblatt tradition for tenors to sneak in a snippet of La Fille du Régiment in their recital programme. It was funny seeing pianist and singer backstage trying to agree on the second encore after Albelo asked for us to wait for a minute…a good light-hearted end to the recital.

Videos from the performance

Some tweets from the evening

Vacuum packed opera

23 Sep
Image courtesy of Andrew Rudin via Twitter (@groveguys)

Image courtesy of Andrew Rudin via Twitter (@groveguys)

Yesterday Peter Gelb, the General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera wrote for Bloomberg:

Throughout its distinguished 129-year history, the Met has never dedicated a single performance to a political or social cause, no matter how important or just. Our messaging has always been through art.

You can read the rest of his argument for not designating the opening gala for Onegin as an occasion to support LGBT people in light of Russia’s recent anti-gay legislation. While reading it I was overtaken by a sense of misplaced propriety by Mr Gelb and also made me wonder what arts bodies like the Met should stand for.

I don’t think arts organisations can be operating like social zombies…happy to hoover public funding but not keen to fulfill a social function. In the world of North American opera Houses the funders are the gods of the circuit. But what do they buy by giving millions to an opera house…a glitzy gala and access privileges or do they also castrate the ability of the organisation to have ideals and to pursuit them?
An organisation of the global reputation and reach of the Met Opera  has more responsibility than smaller houses to set an example. The world of opera cannot afford to be seen in total removal from the reality. The real world is meant to be reflected in its work, outreach and education is part of it but also it should be brave enough to have moral values and to stand by them regardless of what the fat wallets have to say.

Life is political by definition (Aristotle defined it as being part of the Polis, the ancient Greek word for city. Being a citizen one is a political being) and art reflecting life should ideally have an engagement with what means to be human and to be ready to fight for gross injustice and inequality. The arts have traditionally been a fertile field for shady governments to find a fig leaf to cover their dehumanising policies and use artists as the disseminators of propaganda. In a democratic country like the US it is puzzling to me why Mr Gelb will post an open letter essentially presenting the Met Opera as a sympathetic but crucially inert behemoth. Many will say the anti-gay agenda is only part of Putin’s pursuit of his own people and neighbouring nations, which is understandable. My main protest against the Met is its happiness to be seen as a political blank slate. A company that has nothing to say with its work to a world audience, a brain-dead showbiz establishment with no social nous.

Art and artists have found ingenious ways to protest against oppression over the years. Due to the funding basis of the Met being largely private I can understand Mr Gelb wanting to please them by being seen to skirt controversy. But running a major institution can at times be a testing and political business. I was proud when British art establishments from National Museums to the Royal Opera  House came together to fight the imminent budget cuts by an unsympathetic government and not sit and wait for it to happen with fatalistic abandon. If arts institutions don’t have anything to say about our wider environment and life they become a fossil, perpetuating emptiness and pushing themselves into a niche of irrelevance and deference.

Please do go and sign the petition on here which has reached over 9.116 signatories already.

Tonight’s opening gala for Onegin at the Met Opera and despite the management’s numb reaction. Has the potential to be a watershed moment, I hope a lot of the patrons present will wear the rainbow ribbons to show support for the campaign. What is more worrying is that Valery Gergev who is a close ally of President Putin has not deemed the campaign worthy of a statement in the New York Times or any other publication to date. His silence becoming more of a puzzle as the days go past.


A good recent example of applying political pressure are those two blog posts on the Royal Opera House website encouraging direct action across the country to make the government take notice:

The Royal Opera House did urge readers of their blog to lobby their MP

A call for support to make the case for the arts

If you fancy supporting the cause on your social media accounts feel free to use the avatar picture below

ribbon avatar

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

Tudorama / Gloriana / Royal Opera House – 20 June 2013

29 Jun

GlorianaIf Britten’s posthumous reputation was judged solely on Gloriana, history would have been much harsher on him.

Richard Jones turned out another hilarious evocation of a school gym/church hall where Gloriana takes place as a Tudor play. This device clearly makes a tongue in cheek commentary on the advance of the “second Elizabethan age” with the coronation of ERII and Britten’s commission tied up to a royal gala. Ingeniously his proscenium is raised and in front of the stage a nervous mayor , officials and the technical staff of the church hall are waiting for the arrival of the young Queen Elizabeth II who duly shows up at both start and end of the show.

The sets and props by Ultz are beautifully conceptualised and executed within the framework of an amateur dramatics performance. Highlights include the hilarious Tudor huts on wheels representing the medieval City of London. In the Norwich section the big display of vegetables spelling out ER is hilarious as it is quintessentially English (something about marrows and giant veg in the countryside). And of course of all the oversized furniture, King Edward’s Chair on wheels  and Elizabeth’s wreath topped dressing table should have their own postcode.
As usual with Jones consistency is underpinning everything, the bystanders on the side of the stage within a stage are looking bored stiff, a surly looking school mistress type giving joylessly cues, foley artists playing the lute for Essex’s two songs and also toll the bell for town crier.
Unfortunately the masque is terminally dull and marks a major sag in the flow of the evening. The choreography and the music are not of a very high standard (just think that John Cranko choreographed the première) also the strange decision by the Opera House to not allow an interval between Act One and Two making the audience sit through over 100 minutes tested our patience and the end of Act Two couldn’t come quickly enough.
Act Three contains Britten’s most accomplished dramatically music, with gorgeous writing for the strings and a much more elegiac attitude. The confrontation scene between her and Essex as well as the lonely finale has more than a passing resemblance to Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. The writing as it becomes more introspective it also gains dramatic weight making for a very strong second half.
One niggle with Jones’ direction would be that he denied the work the sombre conclusion Britten clearly wanted, by adding the reappearance of the royal party and a little girl to give them flowers. An odd choice since even the programme mentions repeatedly how Britten steered his librettist to this dark and sadness filled finale underlining the fragile mental state of the queen in the prospect of her own mortality. Was he maybe intending us to read it as a reference to our current queen facing the same dilemma as Elizabeth I?

The question of how to stage a Tudor themed opera remains, Jones makes a great case for a more comedic approach but it seems to also rob the work of its solemnity. But the sleekness and imagination are admirable and the execution is beyond reproach.

Amanda Roocroft sang the part in Hamburg and can imagine was a more compelling actress on stage than Susan Bullock. Who was very dramatically involved but any high-lying passages exposed the vocal problems she has with a broad vibrato that detracted from the otherwise very sharp delivery. Her pivotal prayer in Act One was suffused with great beauty, sculpting carefully phrases, but sometimes let down by her upper register. Overall it was more of an acting triumph and a less riveting vocal performance. The tessitura is fairly low for the role but when she verged high it seemed like a struggle on opening night. There have been reports that her production has been more even in subsequent shows which is good to know.

The welcome return of Toby Spence on the Royal Opera House stage was an unqualified success after his recent treatment for thyroid cancer. His Essex was a fully formed human being with flashes of brilliance thought the evening. His two lute songs were as lyrical as they were beautifully projected and loaded with meaning. He also danced away in the ball scene with endearing ebullience.
Patricia Bardon gave such a spirited performance and her smooth comforting contralto sound was so luxurious to almost verge on the obscene. Her plea to the Queen to save Essex from execution was intense and gorgeous, her horror at seeing the Queen wearing her dress suffused with the crushed anguish of a coquette.

Kate Royal unfortunately was underpowered with a voice I have always found fairly colourless and verging on the generic. It was a cruel casting decision as she had no chance opposite Bardon. Looking pretty in a dress in not what makes an opera singer.

Brindley Sherrat was a fantastic bard managing to be intense and in as great a voice as his Creon for ENO’s Medea. Now when will the RO cast him in big roles…sick of seeing him sidetracked for dubious imports. He is the whole package and deserves to be recognised more.

Ben Bevan gave a wonderful debut performance and thus another member of the very talented Bevan opera clan has adorned Covent Garden’s stage.

The chorus and the orchestra made a passionate contribution and made as good a case for Gloriana as a musical and choral work of substance. Paul Daniel conducted the last revival for Opera North so was a very safe pair of hands and did a splendid job with good pacing and a clear sense of dramatic progression.

In the libretto Essex calls Elizabeth ‘Queen of my life’ a few times…I wonder if it was a little gay household colloquialism that crept in as a naughty addition. I couldn’t stop thinking that Britten and Pears would have been hilarious calling each other Queen on my life at home…but that’s just me and my rampant and unfounded ideas. In any case, this was a very entertaining evening despite any shortcomings that could be easily attributed to Britten being on auto pilot rushing to complete the work for its 1953 première. It was definitely worth reviving for a new generation.

A few tweets from the evening

Curtain call video

Production shots on the ROH Flickr

Gloriana 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

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

Medieval Noir / Written on Skin / Royal Opera House – 11 March 2013

14 Mar

Written on SkinBy now you must have all heard the noises by the critics and any other blogging source about Written on Skin. Having watched the cinema broadcast from Aix-en-Provence last July. I was well primed for the live performance and I have to admit I was annoyed by a totally different aspect than the cinema experience.

The work is based on a 12th century Occitan legend telling a story of the Protector commissioning an illustrated manuscript to memorialise his magnificence and wealth. The illustrator (the Boy) is involved in a sexual relationship with the bright, repressed and illiterate Agnès, the wife of his client. The opera explores that journey of self discovery through sexual liberation. Add a sprinkling of angels and her sister and you have the makings of a medieval themed noir film.

George Benjamin’s music is clothed in transparent veils full of subtlety and in many ways a little bit too polite. Like many composers of his generation the shadow of Benjamin Britten still looms large. He doesn’t go for the all out confrontation with the audience’s ears as so many of his contemporaries. This soft and friendly sound must be part of the work’s success and spread across Europe over 2012 and 2013. It won’t scare anyone with its avant-gardist indulgence. Within its politeness it miraculously manages to deliver 95 minutes of gripping drama.  His vocal writing fluctuates from a pedestrian parlando style for the Protector and the Angels to the much more ornamented lines for Agnès and the Boy. Especially their love making duet in Scene Two builds sexual tension with a raw visceral power. Just don’t ask me what the homoerotic attraction between the Protector and the Boy was all about.

Katie Michell’s direction seemed terribly stiff and hell-bent on adding modish touches to the piece. The many close ups of the cinema broadcast amplified this stylistic mishmash. Live it does work much better with the split level boxed set creating a suitably claustrophobic setting for this domestic drama. There is an irritating insistence on slo mo pacing by the actors in the lab/archive section of the set. In a couple of instances it adds a filmic texture but it wears very thin by overuse. As long as the presentation does not remind you of a mashup of the Medieval and High Tech zones of the Crystal Maze you are in a good place. One decision that appears dictated by the starchy libretto was the singers in scenes being physically manipulated and moved by the two angels. It just seems genuinely awkward and an unimaginative way to show a heavenly intervention . Also having the singers announcing their entrances and the profuse mentions in the third person are irritating and create gaps in the storytelling that appear capricious and anti-theatrical.

The stellar performances by the cast and orchestra elevated the evening to a memorable occasion. Barbara Hannigan, Christopher Purves (save for a couple of rough times in two short sotto voce passages) and Bejun Mehta gave their all with smooth vocal delivery and total immersion in their characters. The tension between sex and violence pents up to the inevitable conclusion when the powerful Protector, after losing his control to jealousy, killing the Boy and serving his heart to his unfaithful wife. Instead of being melodramatic, the atmosphere is dark and agitated. But of course the main question for me was how relevant the piece is to the 21st century audience. Dressing the angels in lab coats and putting them in a sterile set does not make for innovation or modernity, the final result has a rather dusty feel.

The achievement of the work and its overall musical beauty is undeniable but colour me unimpressed overall by the moddish staging, the stunted libretto with its profusion of personal pronouns. Benjamin does write a great vocal line but somehow I was left wondering what impact a much more flowing libretto or an altogether more recent source would have had. Trying to bridge the gap of 9 centuries makes for an unconvincing offering that can only stand if we abstract the story away from its specifics to relate to our universal experiences. Of course I am not asking for ludicrous set ups like Judith Weir’s kebab van ladden Miss Fortune but still waiting for the day when a contemporary composer will not seek refuge in the comfort of the past and create something new and about our own times. Metaphors and allusions are useful and stimulating but this avoidance to engage with contemporaneous subjects makes a lot of contemporary opera seem as old as the 19th century standard rep.

Curtain call video from a jaunty angle!

Written on Skin list

After the next best thing / Apollo + 24 Preludes + Aeternum / Royal Opera House – 7 March 2013

11 Mar

RB Mixed BillReading the reviews I was expecting a mixed blessing of an evening and I have to say the combination of classic early Balanchine a new Ratmansky and a new Wheeldon was surprising.

This revival of Apollo was not as impressive as the one by the English National Ballet a couple of years ago. This early gem needs an assurance of line and angularity that this time was missing. Federico Bonelli is an old hand in this work and surely brought personality to the role but he was lost in a tentative ensemble that lacked that unmistakable spark of magic and sense of otherness.

The first Royal Ballet collaboration between the much loved Alexei Ratmansky was an equally problematic piece. Using a rather naff orchestration of Chopin’s 24 preludes for piano by Jean Francaix was a very odd choice. George Balanchine collaborated with Igor Stravinsky in 1928 for a decidedly neoclassical take on Modernism and yet a star choreographer of our day depends on third rate, largely bland, material to build upon. The fact that the surprising turns and twists of the 40 minute ballet are anything but boring is down to his skill.

The piece seems like a conscious introduction and acknowledgement of the history of the company, in one direction he looks back at Frederic Ashton’s A month in the Country with it’s slightly bucolic touches and softness of line for the female soloists and a much more angular writing for the men, a reflection on MacMillan perhaps? The very distinct style for each gender created a dynamic and he built upon it characters for each dancer. Alina Cojocaru took the more demonstrative, happier incidents, playing to her bright stage persona. Zenaida Yanowsky was the woman hurt by men and expressing grief in the only way she can, with large open gestures and her conspicuous stage presence. Rupert Pennefather was the stand out from the boys with a very edgy and stylish performance of Ratmansky’s ambivalent tension between the athletic plasticity and the angularity of the male body. When Yanowsky and long term dancing partner Pennefather came together it was the point when the choreography exploded, showing its true potential.

Ratmansky’s  main differentiating factor was the whimsy and the characterful language, combining intense body contact with very light footwork. I would not put down this new work as a future classic but as a decisive attempt by Kevin O’Hare, the new Director of Ballet, to stamp a new personality after taking over from Monica Mason. This was surely driven by the history of the Royal Ballet and I am excited to see what he can offer in a longer form and with much better music.

Christopher Wheeldon’s Aeternum, built upon Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem was a well staged crowd pleaser, brimming with energy but again his idiom depending on the contrast of a group and a soloist is getting a bit predictable. A beautiful set, largely looking like a driftwood version of the controversial Maggi Hambling shell sculpture in Aldeburgh, was ornamenting the lack of content. Surely Britten’s (surprisingly danceable) score should have encouraged a clear narrative, but it did not come through. The dynamic between a tremendously vibrant Marianela Nuñez was no substitute for true storytelling. At least the return of Federico Bonelli for an intimate pas des deux in the finale, was a welcome idea. The overall language seemed a contemporary take on Balanchine’s idiom but for my taste and despite all the vibrancy of the dancing the result was a weak idea given a very conventional shape, lacking much innovation or point of difference. Hooking on to the Britten centenary to built a new one act work maybe was the hindrance that did not arouse creativity? I am sure a lot of people enjoyed the spectacle but what was he trying to bring out of Britten’s monumental score is the question that remained unanswered. At least the beautiful, robust playing by the orchestra was a balm to our ears, with some exquisite cello passages.

The main joy of the evening was seeing long term favourites like Yanowski, Lamb and Cojocaru lit up the stage in their usual way.

The curtain calls

RB Mixed Bill list

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