Tag Archives: Simon Keenlyside

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

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

13 May

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

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

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

ROH Flute List

Curtain call video

Some Tweets from the evening

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

15 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ROH Onegin list

 

Britten: War Requiem / LSO / Noseda / Barbican Hall – 11 October 2011

13 Oct

 ‘…the work is so superbly proportioned and calculated, so humiliating and disturbing in effect, in fact so tremendous, that every performance it is given ought to be a momentous occasion.’ (published in The Times on 31 May 1962 after the world première in Coventry Cathedral)

Reading the words by the music critic of The Times after the world première is summing up the impressive proportions of the work and the high expectations the audience has every time it is performed live. It is demanding three exceptional soloists and in many ways any live performance has to fight past the wonderfully magnetic premiere recording by Britten himself holding the baton with Vilshnevskaya, Pears and Fischer-Dieskau. Of course it is interesting how this work written to celebrate the opening of Coventry Cathedral by Basil Spence (actually performed 5 days after the official opening/consecration) was to fall foul of cold war politics after the Soviet government did not allow Vilshnevskaya to take part in the first performance, Britten had to make do with Heather Harper. Ironically the three different nationalities of the soloists were meant to be emblematic of reconciliation but in reality it proved an unattainable target till the 1963 recording for Decca where the LSO is paired with Britten’s three ideal singers.

Having been all too familiar with the famous recording I had high expectations and a clear idea how difficult it must be to pull it off live. It was initially disappointing not to have Sir Colin Davis conduct it as originally advertised (amusingly Davis conducted Peter Racine Fricker’s The Golden Warrior two weeks after the first performance of Britten’s magnus opus, which was contributed by Sadler’s Wells to the arts festival for the opening of the cathedral) but Noseda was terrific as it happens!

Britten’s take on the standard Requiem is fascinating. He mixes the finite sounding Latin mass for the dead with Wilfred Owen’s war poetry in his goal to express his abhorrence for war and its consequences. The soprano is the only soloist singing in Latin providing a focus with her tutti with the choir. The tenor and baritone are involved in conversational passages and longer solos only accompanied by a small portion of the orchestra. The boys are accompanied by a bland organ accompaniment adding a certain English charm. What was very clear in the vocal writing for the tenor was how close in form it is to Oberon’s part in Midsummer night’s dream that he had completed two years before the Requiem. There’s a certain crystalline purity of line that is terribly alluring in the right hands.

The way the separate forces were distributed across the stage and the auditorium was a thoughtful touch and true to Britten’s instructions. The soprano was amidst the front row of the choir in the middle of the stage. The tenor and baritone were on the left of the conductor with the children’s choir and chamber organ tacked away at the back left of the Balcony. An interesting use of the acoustic was having the boys face to the side, thus their otherworldly, uninvolved with stage action, singing was hovering above our heads.

The true star of the evening was the London Symphony Chorus which uttered their opening phrases in Requiem aeternam with such subtlety and bitterness, instantly setting the tone for the whole evening. Britten wanted horror and creepiness from the chorus and he surely got that from the LSC. Their singing was attentive to the instructions of Noseda and had the required force and energy where required e.g. Dies irae.

Ian Bostridge has been a Britten specialist for most of his career and surely his engagement with the material was total. His opening solo was full of sensitivity and beautifully enunciated English as befitting the narration of Owen’s war poetry. He clearly engaged his whole body while singing, thrusting himself forward to reach the climactic moment in Agnus Dei. He was as wonderful to listen to as it was to look at.

Simon Keenlyside is a piece of butch baritonal hunkiness (as confirmed in the recent Pelleas) and he was excellent throughout but for me he lacked a little bit of idiomatic affinity with the piece. He was more Keenlyside than a German soldier in the mould of Fischer-Dieskau. Looking forward to change my mind, maybe, when I listen to the CD release of the concert. He just sounded a bit too heavy handed, at times verging into camp parody (especially in the Abraham passage).

Sabina Cvilac did a good job too, but seemed on the small size vocally to cut through the bells, trumpets and huge choir at times. Her tone was warm, but not as troubled sounding or commanding as Vishnevskaya’s. Someone with heavier artillery (terrible pun) would have given more punch to the Latin script and propelled it across the auditorium with more ferocity.

Britten’s complex textures with glistening strings and menacing percussion surely needs an orchestra at the top its game and the LSO once more impressed beyond measure. They were assured and well honed. Clearly in sync with Noseda (not a too frequent collaborator) and serving the music and their own world class reputation with aplomb. I am terribly happy that both performances were recorded to be preserved. The upcoming CD will hopefully transmit the excellent night we all had at the hall and how Britten’s shattering vision was brought to life and unfolded in front of us in 90 relentless minutes. It truly was a wonderful evening and with a piece that relays uncertainty and horror. A good match for the world we live in, torn by wars and on the edge of financial collapse.

Here’s an interesting photo gallery on the LSO’s Facebook account (look out for the stage plan!)

Here is the PDF of the programme

Britten’s War Requiem

11 Oct

After months of waiting, tonight will be my first ever live War Requiem. Glad it is courtesy of a sterling team and reading through the reviews of the first performance on Sunday, it will be a grand occasion.

You can join in by reading through the programme notes, kindly provided by the LSO, download the PDF here . Tonight’s performance alongside Sunday’s are being recorded for future CD release.

More (hopefully) tomorrow or follow my Tweets for more immediate off the cuff commentary!

A three act Pelléas et Mélisande, yes three acts! / Barbican Hall – 19 April 2011

20 Apr

Cast

Natalie Dessay Mélisande
Simon Keenlyside Pelléas
Marie-Nicole Lemieux Geneviève
Laurent Naouri Golaud
Alain Vernhes Arkel
Khatouna Gadelia Yniold
Nahuel Di Pierro Doctor

My knowledge of French opera is at most rudimentary,  and never had the time to tackle Pelléas et Mélisande head on before. Unfortunately due to my bad planning and awful London transport I was too late for the start so let’s pretend that Act One never existed. Also I would not recommend to anyone to be late if you have second row tickets…got a grumpy look from Simon Keenlyside as we sat down!

I had listened to numerous excerpts of the opera and always found the expansive soundworld of Debussy to be interesting and compositionally accomplished but never quite grabbed me like much of Italian opera from the Baroque to the 19th century. So I knew the only way I’d sit down and listen to the whole opera would be a live performance. After seeing the cast I booked my tickets almost a year ahead and the journey started!

From the first bars of the Act Two it was very clear that Langrée and his Parisian forces were totally idiomatic, their soundstage was wide and enveloping the textural detail was there and the string playing was creamy and flowing like the many watery references in the work. A nice touch was how Langrée was almost singing along with the singers reciting (silently) the libretto alongside the performers he was queuing.

What seemed a bit strange was that Dessay, possibly the most famed singing actress of our time, was almost immobile and seemed almost attached to her score. There were glimpses of acting, like in the scene where she drops the ring in the well and her conversation with Pelléas was full of warmth and familiarity which accompanied with Keenlyside’s ardent boyish acting and Dessay’s radiant forward projection it was a marvel. But when the question of Pelléas by Golaud came about Naouri stole the show with vibrant acting that seemed natural and emotionally involved and his singing was as accomplished. I particularly enjoyed how he used the page turning of his score as a way to express the turmoil of his character while questioning Pelléas about Mélisande. He was also wonderfully naturalistic in his interaction with Yniold, being at times tender and at times very harsh and investigative.  Khatouna Gadelia is one young soprano to watch out for, she showed a fresh tone, beautiful diction and vibrant dramatic qualities.

In Acts Three and Four Dessay gave us a beautifully sang heroine reaching the end of her life with a tragic but at the same time a breezy resignment. Her declaring I’m not happy to Golaud was emotional and beautifully sang which made her apparent over-reliance on the score all the more annoying as her singing was delicate and powerful as needed for the part of the romantic heroine.

Of course what stroke me in quite a few places was the banality of the libretto, especially some of the metaphors looked even worse in translation e.g. water in a muslin bag comes to mind. Of course Italian libretti are full of silly references and bizarre plotlines but at least they are saved by the melodies within the score, they have key arias that lift the work. With Pelléas et Mélisande there is no such respite, which in part is a credit to Debussy’s boldness and in the other hand it can be suffocating during a live performance.

The very lushness and enveloping nature of the score is not to be underestimated, as I tellingly Tweeted about it, it reminded me of a wall to wall plush carpeted London semi. And that I was more of a floorboards kind of guy (which is totally true by the way). It seems that the me and Claude will not get along too well for sometime but it was a great experience that I wouldn’t want to repeat to soon. But dear patient reader that has nothing to do with the quality of the performance as this was a wonderful cast  with the exception maybe  of Alain Vernhes who was underpowered against the enveloping forces of the orchestra, that may have to do with the conductor not being too attentive and keeping the playing at lower levels of volume. And a truly excellent and idiomatic orchestra it’s just me and Claude will have to talk over our differences in the near future and maybe some rapport can be built.  

And of course it was charming having the orchestra playing Happy Birthday for Natalie Dessay with all of us singing very badly to it. And also odd having a member of the audience four seats away booing rather violently Langrée at the end of the performance, we were all puzzled at his reaction, but hey, clearly Debussy affects people in totally different ways, at least he didn’t fall asleep! I also regret not seeing Lemieux perform in Act One as I can imagine she would have been sensational. I’ll have to wait for her next performance at The Barbican with Joyce Didonato in Ariodante which will have to be one of the highlights of this year!  

Here is the link to Fiona Maddocks’s expert review of the same performance: Click!

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