Tag Archives: Royal Opera

Courses for horses / Les Troyens / Royal Opera House, Covent Garden – 5 + 11 July 2012

14 Jul

The most anticipated opera production of this summer in London (aside tenuous connections to the dreadful 2012 Festival) a new production of this operatic behemoth. The signs were bad when the stalwart tenor Jonas Kaufmann had to withdraw and Brian Hymel took on the role of Enée. A lot of concerns were voiced and predictions of doom and gloom. Of course what opera fans should have worried about was the dead hand of David McVicar who proved once more to lack both a revelatory insight or even an unshakable overarching vision. The production is patchy and doesn’t really serve the material well.

In a work with considerable longueurs courtesy of Berlioz a bad production can make it from uncomfortable in length to unbearable. McVicar seems to only care for the first two Acts who were crowd managed to perfection and the set by Devlin was handsome and sleek. The problem of course is why would anyone think moving the action to the 1850s was a good idea. This looks more like a bourgeois gathering at the Cafe Royal than the desperate inhabitants of Troy under a ten-year siege. Why the mechanistic look dripping with rusty metal? Why the by the meter long flowing dresses and lace and trims everywhere one looks? Making Anna Caterina Antonacci look like the mad woman on the scrapheap of twisted metal is such a mindless degradation of the intentions of Berlioz and the gravitas of the persona, making the viewer instantly weary of what’s up next. The arrival of the horse is indeed impressive and its movement as sleek  as we would demand. The vivid image of its fiery presence dominating the floored Cassandre is a wonderful moment of almost cinematic power. Of course one has to wonder why did the horse need to go up in flames? It seems pyrotechnics are the last refuge of desperate directors trying to capture the attention of indifferent audiences…ahem let’s not recall the disastrous Don Giovanni (that has thankfully been scrapped for ever).

Unfortunately his Carthage Acts look so disconnected and romanticised, there is no obvious timeline connection to Troy. The stepped “apartment block made of mud” set attracted applause on the first night I saw it, which made a lot of us present cringe.  More obvious this failing is when Enée and his soldiers walk in, disrupting the entertainment and love in of Didon and her subjects. Eva-Maria Westbroek is dressed in full on odalisque costume, matt gold dress and a relaxed off white robe, a Bedouin meets Parisian fashion look in total contrast to the 1850s military uniform of the Troyans. Their appearance makes both Didon and her setting look even more shabby.  She also sits on a model of the town which later on becomes airborne in the manner more appropriate to Star Wars: A New Hope than a Berlioz opera. If McVicar wanted to say anything through the set costumes and the truly dreadful dancing is beyond me. The programme may dismissively informing us that audiences can’t accept men in skirts any more but somehow ignores that a more classical approach serves the material better, but of course is less of an ego boost for the director.

This production managed to go through the motions professionally and kept stage interest active but lost on the way to crowd pleasing the dramatic core of Berlioz’s complicated and multifaceted epic. It is a tragédie lyrique after all and any flippant choices for relocation of the action to another time period take a toll on the effective staging of the work. The current cult of the director being imposed on a tricky work like Les Troyens creates a hollow construct that does much of the sublime music and singing no justice. A particularly ridiculous example was Ed Lyon being pulled up in the flytower like a housewife would collect her washing in Napoli…dragged up on a rope, after singing a most sublime aria of longing. Why not go for a more conventional rope ladder to come down from the mast? It was just complication for the sake of complication with no apparent thinking behind it.

Had the chance to see it twice and the most diametrically opposite parts of the auditorium, a third row Orchestra Stalls seat at a cost of £183 and an Upper Slips bench seat for £15. The experience was thoroughly illuminating and very, very different. At Stalls one can be tantalizingly close to the singers and orchestra but the sound can suffer at times, while at the extremities of the gods the sound is surprisingly warm and immediate but a pair of binoculars comes handy!

The cast was uneven but with some great rewards to be had.

Eva-Maria Westbroek was a resplendent Didon, solemn sexuality paired with self-confidence, sense of purpose and demure deportment. Her singing started a big unsteady on the 5th but grew in confidence and dramatic power through the evening. Her final aria was truly fantastic, her Ah! Je vais mourir was so committed and forceful creating a compulsive atmosphere of empathy for the character. She sang the middle part of it straight at me, it was one of those unforgettable moments looking eye to eye with such a wonderful performer while she is on the final strait of the tragic trajectory of this most demanding role. The only constraint through the performance was the fairly stiff direction of McVicar who had her sitting a lot on top of toytown Carthage and on random cushions, creating a look of a dull odalisque in the Ingres mould. Westbroek is a physical performer that thrives in being able to engage more with the set and colleagues. So it was a relief to have her final scene played out against an off-black curtain instead of the set, thus liberated and being able to focus on the drama.

Brian Hymel may have lacked the stage charisma and the variety of colouring in his voice to be an ideal Enée but he surely made up in enthusiasm and eagerness to please with his technically accomplished and very well projected voice. On the two performances you could see him growing in confidence and the chemistry between him and Westbroek was there. Especially during the dire dancing in Act Four where she was getting very friendly with Aenee on a large pile of floor cushions (sounds downright dirty but wasn’t really). His stronger showing was during Act Five where he sang with great propulsion if not Gallic flair. He surely offered an impressive C at the conclusion of his Inutiles regrets which made for an exciting addition to the night.

The stand out performance of both evenings was Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Cassandre, she was both stylistically appropriate with an intense stage presence and a vivid embodiment of the character. Also the only cast member that looked totally independent of the particular holds of this production, almost a mini production inside McVicar’s simplistic mush. Her very entrance on both nights sent shivers down my spine. Her total conviction and stylised acting may looked out of date to many, but had that been replaced with what nowadays? She deeply felt the drama and relayed it in her great dark voice and charismatic presence, isn’t that what opera is all about? She brought a touch of the golden age to this production that was worth the price of admission alone, she was exceptional in all her perturbed glory and archetypal painted eyes in her palms. Cassandre has some of the most individualistic music in Troyens and Antonacci managed to not just fulfill the requirements but to go far and beyond and make us all drank with her charisma and dramatic personification of a vibrant figure from Greek mythology. Her two big arias in Act One were such intense theatre and her attention to every word gave depth and stripped back all the clutter and junk this production acquired courtesy of director and set designer. A triumph by a great singer/actress.

Unfortunately she had to duet with Fabio Capitanucci, who just belted out his part clearly not being told this was Berlioz he was singing and not some verismo shocker. I am afraid his gifts were wasted on a bad fit with the material.

Brintley Sherratt offered a vocally solid Narbal with impeccable taste and good sense for the rest of the ensemble.

Hanna Hipp one of the young artists of the Royal Opera was a wonderful sister to Westbroek’s Didon, sang with power and conviction, one can imagine what a great experience it must have been partnering one of the greatest singers of our times. Looking forward in seeing her in the revived Otello in a week’s time.

Ji-min Park as Iopas was a lovely light presence in the middle of the Carthaginian section, he sang his song of the fields with laser like projection, if a bit too sharp on the first night I saw him.

Ed Lyon sang Hylas’ aria that kicks off Act Five with such great beauty, gleam, wistfulness and melancholy. He surely made a big impression on both nights adding a much needed and thoroughly enjoyable punctuation to a long evening at the opera. He did caress the words with such flair and understanding for the style that won us over near instantly.

The chorus of the Royal Opera was in good form on both nights and worked exemplary well with the soloists and orchestra, which played with verve on both nights, despite the too quick tempi adopted by Pappano for the first two Acts. On the last night the balance between speed and dramatic development was much more settled and particularly the hunt and storm scenes at the beginning of Act Four seemed much speedier and alive.

The performance of the Thurs 5 July was relayed live and available to view on demand for the coming months at The Space, they also recorded the performances on 1st and 8th of July, so expect a full blown Blu-Ray and DVD release come 2013 with all the best bits of the three nights spliced together. Lets hope some of the silly extravagances indulged in this outing will be more subdued/rethought for the upcoming presentations in Vienna, Milan and San Francisco before it returns to the stage at Covent Garden in the future.

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

The exquisite Eglise and a sleeping duck of a Sonnambula / La Sonnambula / Royal Opera House – 7 November 2011

10 Nov

Three days later and I’m still conflicted over this production of La Sonnambula. Bel Canto is my biggest operatic passion and this production seriously let down both the cast and the composer.

This rewarmed up production from 2002 may look sleek and appropriately art deco, but it really does not serve the story of the opera or the singers well. The action is stolid and some of the silly antics (cake trolley comes to mind and smoking by Lisa) have no connection to the narrative line of the piece and just create distraction. Removing the story from a simple village setting to a mountain top sanatorium (which looks like the foyer of an art deco cinema) was a pretty stupid idea even back in 2002. It deprives the work of it’s naivete and is trying to shoehorn the action into an one set affair, disregarding the needs of the action. Elvino doesn’t have a bedroom and Amina has to slalom down a snowed on table like a show dog at Crufts. My heart went out to the singers that had to push through all this unnecessary baggage and shine through.

I went not expecting very much of Albelo, after reading complaints from other bloggers of the first two performances. On the third he seemed to be a good match for Gutiérrez, they both possess dark timbred instruments with a warm tone. Unfortunately for him though, he seemed to be pushing quite hard to hit his higher notes. The obvious comparison would be with Florez, who in contrast may have all the high notes and secure technique but he is lacking on the human warmth that brings Elvino to life.  In many levels he was satisfactory, especially in the duets with Amina but most of his arias were marred by his discomfort with the material, at times making us think he was auditioning for a Puccini opera. We needed a romantic hero with seamless legato and effortless production, we surely got shortchanged.

The role of Lisa is not so central to the action and this dreadful production has made it more slapstick than ever. Xanthoudakis sang with brio and charisma but somehow had a rather sharp delivery that was slightly out of sorts with bel canto.

Elizabeth Sikora, was a beautifully acted Teresa full of empathy but also unshaken trust for her daughter. She sang with security and open tone, one of the joys of the evening.

Michele Pertusi’s Count Rodolfo was seen by many reviewers as excellent, on the night he seemed over reliant on his cheeky part and not too married to the vocal requirements. His singing was smooth and well projected but somehow did not hit the mark as a complete character. But again I’d blame more the dreadful production than the singer.

Amina is a huge challenge for any coloratura soprano and there are very few that fulfill the requirements and can answer Bellini’s demands with aplomb. Eglise Gutiérrez is an extraordinary singer, she posses frightful coloratura technique and yet has a lower placed voice with powerful chest notes. It’s quite removed from the traditional nightingale sound with it’s airy delivery and stratospheric agility. The director did not make it easy for her, with fussy detailing and some very strange choices, he made her stagework much more difficult. Her opening Care Compagne was full of sweetness and affection. She continued with a definite cheekiness that was trying to imbue this lifeless production with some spunk. The rest of her first Act was beautifully sang and well ornamented. I cannot think of a single note she had to overtly aspirate or smudge her way to a D or an E. My only criticism would be that in that act she seemed to have gone for a more cautious approach. Her volume was quite low and seemed as if she was preserving her powers for the more difficult second act.

The clincher with any Sonnambula performance is her Ah! Non credea mirarti in the final scene of the second act. She delivered in spades. It was beautiful but also meaningful, that was as close as I have come to crying during an opera this year. Her flowing legato and solid vocal line was a marvel, alongside the placement of her high register. When it’s broadcast on Radio 3 listen in and see if you don’t feel a lump at the back of your throat. It was sensational! Bizarrely after this famously challenging aria and a tough cabaletta to follow the director asked for a dress change in a red velvet number beloved of Violettas the world over. The curtain came down and Amina walked on the proscenium to sing her Ah! Non Giunge uman pensiero and then the curtains opened and she walked on the table to conclude the evening with some truly extraordinary ornaments and topping it with a ceiling scrapping high F! I can’t imagine a single singer right now being able to pull it off in such fashion.

A special mention has to be made to the performance of the orchestra which was ropey at best, verging on to disastrous at times. Were they under rehearsed or was it all the fault of Daniel Oren and his singer unfriendly conducting? He seemed to spare little thought for Bellini’s actual tempi and to how the singers had to breathe to deliver their demanding coloratura. He lacked the finesse and the attention to detail a bel canto score demands. The first act felt like it was dragging on for at least two hours. At least in the second act things got slightly more brisk and the singers were better supported. It does not make sense inviting a hot rising star like Gutiérrez to front this singer’s opera only to let them down by shoddy direction, irrelevant sets and terrible conducting.

I will agree with Joyce DiDonato that ‘the world is lucky she is here’* and hope in the future the Royal Opera will offer Gutiérrez more roles that fit her extraordinary capabilities with new fresh productions that serve the music, singers and make Covent Garden look like a professional institution that takes its mission seriously. Bel canto needs dedication and the highest artistry, this production deserves to be binned soon after the last performance of the current run. How about a Semiramide Kasper?

The broadcast on Radio 3 is on 19 November at 6pm, tune in!

Tweets from the evening:

http://twitter.com/#!/OperaCreep/status/133626766177746945

http://twitter.com/#!/OperaCreep/status/133651276985671681

http://twitter.com/#!/OperaCreep/status/133653441493999617

http://twitter.com/#!/OperaCreep/status/133653903504977920

http://twitter.com/#!/OperaCreep/status/133676092660785152

http://twitter.com/#!/OperaCreep/status/133676108460732416

http://twitter.com/#!/OperaCreep/status/133679552252739584

http://twitter.com/#!/OperaCreep/status/133680351053742082

http://twitter.com/#!/OperaCreep/status/133684098509180928

http://twitter.com/#!/OperaCreep/status/133686783723573250

http://twitter.com/#!/JoyceDiDonato/status/133902737757831168

My first live Trittico tonight!

23 Sep

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

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

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

Creative team credits on the ROH website

That was an incredible performance! One of those perfect, once in a lifetime perfect. Thank you!* / Cendrillon / Royal Opera House, Covent Garden – 11 July 2011

12 Jul

What a night it was!

Writing my impressions on the fourth performance may seem late to many but ask any opera singer and they will confess that three shows in they feel much more relaxed in the character and the first night nerves are a thing of the past. I want to see a production at its best and not just to be there on opening to do it first, that is frankly the job of so many much more experienced professional reviewers. In this instance it seems that Joyce DiDonato was not in her best singing voice in a couple of performances owing to a cold. So glad to have missed those earlier manifestations of this glorious romp.

Arriving in the auditorium and you’re faced with a row of closed doors, walls papered with Charles Perrault’s book. The set itself (designed by Barbara De Limburg) and its interior world of the book itself is such a clever and expandable device that Laurent Pelly used to a great effect. The whole set is a big concertina construction that opens and closes to create from the intimate bedroom of Lucette (Cendrillon’s real name) to the grand salon of the palace. Extra mobile constructions are adding a balcony, a smoky rooftop and a pile of appropriately red books is the outcrop that the fairy godmother makes her final triumphant appearance on.

Who said that productions can’t be fun and effective without moving the action into a Parisian brothel or any other unrelated location so beloved of a number of European directors? Laurent Pelly directed the action with aplomb and with great comic timing.

The fact he also designed the costumes added another layer of fun (his odd and silly costumes for the various princesses are just hilarious) and they were used to give it a total look that helps the work all the way. For instance Ewa Podleś Madame de la Haltiere was defined by her comic timing but also by the absurd padding and restrictive nature of her costuming. Though he couldn’t resist an early bit of furniture abuse by Cendrillon’s father Pandolfe, which was not necessary.   But it was little thoughtful, intelligent touches that made it so much fun to watch, such as:  the army of look-a-likes, women dressed like Cendrillon (being the helpers of the fairy godmother) and men looking like prince charming in the forest/roof top sequence. Added extra visual interest and quirkiness. The grand palace gates turn into a clock counting down the minutes for Cendrillon’s departure at the end of Act Two…you get the idea!

Our Cendrillon, Joyce DiDonato was in incredible vocal form. She glided through the trickiest passages with smoothness and character. And there was none of the obvious tightness on the radio broadcast from last Saturday. Whatever she did on Sunday, we’re thankful for, as she was amazing. Her first aria was warm and heartfelt and right on the money. And there was an interesting trajectory through her performance. She started at a lowish piano sound and escalated the volume of the voice towards the last two acts. In effect giving extra depth to her interpretation from a young resigned but good-hearted girl to the belle of the ball. Her Third Act aria (Seule, je partirai, mon pere) was incredible with such warmth and humanity, we had no second thoughts Cendrillon was thinking of her mother. Of course the obvious highlights of the night were the duets with Prince Charmant, Coote and DiDonato were a beautiful all round couple, rising the emotional temperature to the maximum.

Alice Coote as the Prince Charmant was exemplary, with powerful projection and impressive male mannerisms convinced straight away as the prince of the tale. She acted the part top to toe and her intensity was an absolute joy. Hope the Royal Opera will entrust her big roles in the future as she was an awesome sight.

Ewa Podleś as Madame de Haltiere was the comedic core of the evening, whatever she did on stage everyone laughed out loud! Her beautiful contralto echoed to the roof of the auditorium. In my mind she was almost channelling Hyacinth Bucket which made her adorably silly. She was one of the main reasons I booked to see it and she surely delivered! Such elegance and flair alongside her crazily dressed daughters. Pure genius!

Jean-Philippe Lafont was again as funny as Podleś  but he was having obvious problems in the upper register of his voice, but given the role, it all added to a very sympathetic portrayal of the character. A great contribution to the overall team work.

Eglise Gutiérrez as the Fairy Godmother was a treat, a sugar-coated treat! She ornamented and relished her trills and staccati. She gave us a rather louche Godmother that lightened up proceedings further and added the frosting on this french fancy of an opera. Surely looking forward to her Amina next season!

The orchestra under the direction of Bertrand De Billy sounded fresh and bouncy. A total equal to the world-class singing on stage.

A lot of opera goers would still associate the title role with Frederica von Stade. She performed it for decades and also made the famous recording of the role in 1979 under Julius Rudel. But judging on the recording it’s time we forgot about her and realised that the Cendrillon of our time is Joyce DiDonato, who sounded not only an equal to Flicka but surely surpassed her last night.

Steal, beg or borrow and get some tickets to see the final two performances or rush to one of the open air venues that host the live telecast this Wednesday. If the weather permits I’ll surely be doing the latter. Possibly the most enjoyable night at Covent Garden for me since 2003. Cross your fingers for a very possible DVD release of the telecast. A total joy, an operatic fairytale, what more can anyone ask for?

*My Tweet after being awestruck by such a brilliant performance by Joyce DiDonato and the rest of the excellent cast.

Details of the outdoor screenings can be found here

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

2 May

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

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

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

Act1

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

Act2

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

Act3

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

Act4

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

Conclusion

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

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

Is it a yey or a ney?

27 Apr

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

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

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

To do it in scorecard stylee

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

Links for reviews:

What’s on Stage

Daily Mail

Daily Telegraph

Islington Gazette

What’s on Stage

The Guardian

The Observer

Bachtrack

The Independent

Anna Nicole

2 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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