Sunday, 3 January 2016

Book Review: Noisy at the Wrong Times, by Michael Volpe

Noisy at the Wrong Times: The Story of a Boy Who Didn’t Know His Place
By Michael Volpe. Two Roads Books. 309pp. £8.99. ISBN: 978-1-473-62940-0

[Review published in Opera, January 2016, pp 121-2]

The title gives a two-fold clue. This book, first published earlier this year and now appearing in paperback, might be the memoirs of the founder of Opera Holland Park, but it is by no means an ‘opera memoir’. It tells primarily, instead, of Michael Volpe’s remarkable childhood. ‘Noisy at the wrong times’ is a phrase the author has extracted from his first headmaster’s school report from Woolverstone Hall, the ‘poor man’s Eton’ outside Ipswich to which Volpe, plucked from inner-city London, was sent as a young boy.

Volpe lays out the details of his childhood on a Fulham housing estate. It’s difficult, knowing Volpe’s later history, and not least Opera Holland Park’s penchant for the more extreme corners of the verismo repertoire, not to see much of this childhood as ‘operatic’, with young Michael witness to a tale of fiery Cavalleria urbana. (Early excursions to Italy, where his relatives included a marvellous trapeze-artist uncle, offer a few moments of rusticana contrast.)

There’s the Italian mother, abandoned by the philandering, ne’er-do-well father, who eventually drags herself and her three young boys out of abject poverty: a fierce, noble and instinctive woman whom Volpe describes with the honest and open sincerity that defines the book. As appendices he reprints the eulogies he offered at both her funeral and at that of his brother Matteo, whose troubled life of addiction and intermittent incarceration we’re constantly aware could also have been emulated by Volpe. In a touch that’s typical of the book, Volpe describes both losses with heartbreaking but big-hearted candour, and then goes on to turn his account of Matteo’s death into a passionate paean to the National Health Service and plea for its survival.

It’s too late for the survival of Woolverstone, which we gradually get to know as the book proceeds after Volpe wins a place there, and the book is shot through with a regret both for its demise and for Volpe’s own inability to make the most of the opportunities it afforded him at the time—he embraced the chances offered by the remarkably adventurous drama department and the tension-releasing opportunities available on the rugby pitch but was otherwise, by his own admission, a stubbornly obstructive and rebellious pupil. Volpe’s account of his time at school is, like the book in general, entertaining and often riotously funny, but wise after the event; he writes movingly in retrospect about those teachers who inspired him, with regret about those whom he treated, he admits, disgracefully. That first headmaster quoted above, takes pride of place: ‘Paddy’ Richardson was a man whose wisdom and gentle encouragement—and wily methods of psychological gameplay to bring out the best in his charges— made a deep impression on young Volpe, even if their effects took a long time to manifest themselves. His death in a car crash came at a pivotal time in Volpe’s Woolverstone career and was a catalyst both for the unleashing of the boy’s (self-)destructive tendencies, the author suggests, and for the eventual demise of Woolverstone. This latter event sparks a broader discussion about social mobility and the manifold inadequacies of the well-meaning but, in Volpe’s view, ineffective strategies that replaced the idealism that had informed the Woolverstone project.

This is a pattern throughout the book, where later the specifics of Volpe’s own engagement with opera are also used as the platform from which to launch a passionate defence of the art form and its universal appeal: a philosophy that has informed Opera Holland Park since its foundation, via a somewhat roundabout route, over a quarter of a century ago. As such it’s an inspiring and thought-provoking memoir, its narrative—unpredictable and bracing—driven along by Volpe’s humour, honesty and generosity as a storyteller. And the ultimate message, that seeds sown on apparently unreceptive soil can stubbornly bear fruit, is a powerful and important one about education, opportunity and culture.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Semperoper Dresden: Der Rosenkavalier and Elektra

[From OPERA, March 2015, pp. 328-9]

The Semperoper’s Strauss-anniversary celebrations came full circle at the end of 2014 with the return, with a new cast, of Barbara Frey’s Elektra, with which it had all started in January. The main attraction, however, was a reprise of Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s 2000 production of Der Rosenkavalier, with Anja Harteros as the Marschallin and Christian Thielemann at the helm (seen on December 14). The production itself holds up well, placing the action in a contemporary setting but doing so with a light touch: paparazzi plague the ‘celebrities’ that the principal characters have now become; the Marschallin’s palace apparently has to be propped up financially by guided tours; Faninal’s residence becomes the penthouse of Trump Tower. There are a few unsuccessful touches, not least the staging of the Prelude (Strauss’s music here is not, it’s fair to say, depicting the act of frantic undressing), or having Mohammed indulgently pampered by the Marschallin. One thing’s for sure, though: it’s a much finer effort than Frey’s Elektra.

Musically, too, this Rosenkavalier showed the Semperoper at its very best, with the playing of the Staatskapelle reaching the highest levels of exquisitely relaxed virtuosity—a sort of supreme flexibility, of both tempo and texture, that reminded me of the playing of another Staatskapelle, Barenboim’s Berliners, at the 2013 Proms Ring. Thielemann’s tempo fluctuations could be, by any normal criteria, outrageous at times: the nearly ten seconds of silence before the Trio or the impetuous surging towards its climax, for example, or the way he lingeringly eased the orchestra back into its waltz at Baron Ochs’s ‘Ich wart’ auf Antwort’. But with the orchestra on such form, these moments were totally convincing, and with such a fine cast playing along, the overall effect was both beguiling and moving.

Harteros, in particular, benefited from the flexibility, and her Act 1 monologue was superb, all the more memorable for the way in which the production allowed her space to stalk the stage and command it fully. As already noted in these pages, the voice is not quite the silky, creamy stuff of Straussian dreams, but it has enough of those qualities as well as its own special beauty—a slight gauziness encasing a firm, powerful core—and is always employed with the greatest elegance and musicality. Similarly, her characterization is impeccably aristocratic, even a touch austere—dressed in black and white, she seemed to resemble a stern Spanish Habsburg, rather than a high-ranking subject of their Viennese cousins. 

Her Octavian was Sophie Koch, very much a staple in this role, but one whose commitment and vocal richness shouldn’t be taken for granted, even if her mezzo has lost some of its vibrant sheen and security. Christiane Karg’s Sophie was wonderful, a perky, sparky characterization matched by singing that spoke of very human vulnerability and sensuality rather than doll-like purity. I’m not sure I’ve heard a finer Trio: with help from the Semperoper’s glorious acoustic, all three voices managed to remain distinct while blending beautifully. Peter Rose was in fine voice as Ochs, and Adrian Eröd’s emphatic Faninal and Yosep Kang’s excellent Italian Tenor led a fine extended cast.

The fact that the evening belonged to Thielemann and his orchestra, though, was largely emphasized, I’m afraid to say, the following evening, when Peter Schneider took to the podium for Elektra, in the production that Thielemann had conducted with such fleet-footed ferocity at the beginning of the year. Schneider’s account was solid and unremarkable, and his cast seemed not to have had a great deal of rehearsal. Nonetheless, the performance was worth hearing, primarily for Elena Pankratova as Elektra. The Russian soprano had tackled the role in Bari earlier in the year and here showed that her voice, a remarkably powerful and beautiful instrument, smoothly produced across its range right up to a thrilling top, is up to the challenges of the role, even if the middle register felt occasionally under-projected. Dramatically her performance was routine, admittedly, but this would no doubt improve were she given more direction in a more interesting production; vocally, though, she is a
welcome addition to the relatively large number of fine Elektras on today’s scene.

Manuela Uhl sang a powerful, often exciting, sometimes sharp Chrysothemis. Jane Henschel showed that she’s still a formidable Klytemnestra, offering the polar opposite of Waltraud Meier’s understated and under-sung characterization in January. Markus Marquardt was a solid Orest, singing in a pleasingly grainy and powerful baritone.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Vienna Staatsoper: Khovanshchina & The Cunning Little Vixen; Theater an der Wien: Les Pêcheurs de perles

[From OPERA, February 2014, pp. 171-175]

The two new productions unveiled in the Austrian capital in the second week of November could not have been more different: a light-hearted, satirical and pop-culture-savvy Les Pêcheurs de perles at the Theater an der Wien from the young Dutch director Lotte de Beer, and a boldly austere and powerful—not to mention musically superb—Khovanshchina at the staatsoper from Lev Dodin, the long-standing director of St Petersburg’s Maly Theatre.

One of the main attractions of the Bizet (seen on the first night, November 16) was Diana Damrau’s Leïla. She gamely threw herself into De Beer’s entertaining conception of the piece, which dragged its quaint and clunky orientalist plot into the 21st century. Before the opera even started, a TV production crew came onto the stage and kicked out the Ceylon natives, tearing down their hut and erecting fake palm trees in readiness for ‘Perlenfischer: The Challenge!’—as Fin Ross’s projection luridly proclaimed onto a large, round, semi-transparent screen. The chorus was contained behind that screen, revealed during its numbers as representative groups of the TV-watching public, glued to the show in tightly-packed compartments (the set was designed by Marouscha Levy).

There were hints of The Truman Show in the way the action was manipulated by the production team, as well as echoes of half a dozen recent reality shows, with Zurga and Nadir delivering their arias to camera in a hastily-assembled booth, their super-size faces projected behind. It was all entertaining and tongue-in-cheek, and done with imagination and flair, if not always the necessary economy (videos spelling out Zurga and Leïla’s backstory were entirely superfluous). But it presented the inevitable problems, not least in a yawning chasm that developed between De Beer’s Konzept, in which scenario and emotions were presented as so manufactured and manipulated, and the opera—particularly as the latter started to get serious.

The characters, already stock and ill defined, inevitably became yet more confusing. On her arrival, for example, Damrau’s Leïla was pointedly nervous and jittery, getting ready to play her bizarre role as part love-interest, part celebrity yoga instructor. The German soprano had to deliver her first aria while demonstrating her latest yoga routine—an impressive feat, no doubt—and the voice itself was never less than beautiful, with an effective mixture of creamy allure and steely core, if not quite the all-out lyrical ease and seductiveness one might want.

As Nadir, presented as the winner of the show’s previous series, Dmitry Korchak sang with a voice that tended to harden at higher volumes, but which was beautifully flexible and honeyed in the quieter passages; the tenor delivered a meltingly lyrical account of his romance. There was less vocal allure from Nathan Gunn’s buff, slightly gruff Zurga, with the phrases often cut a little shorter than ideal. Nicolas Testé’s suave Nourabad served as the ‘presenter’ of the whole thing, merrily rhubarb-rhubarbing to camera when he didn’t have actual lines to sing. The ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien played vibrantly for Jean-Christophe Spinosi, who offered an efficient, unsentimental reading of the score.

The Staatsoper’s Khovanshchina was defined by a seriousness of purpose and sense of concentration that seemed to be exactly what this great, implacable and unconsoling work demands (seen at the second performance, on November 18). The conductor Semyon Bychkov had clearly taken enormous care with the orchestra and chorus (bolstered by the Slovak Philharmonic Chorus and children of the Staatsoper’s opera school) and the musical result was plain to hear: the playing was gloriously refined but also unrestrained in its primal power, the choruses controlled with the utmost dynamic precision. This was very much a case of the drama’s iron fist clad in the most velvety of musical gloves, especially so given Bychkov’s decision to go with Shostakovich’s orchestration (for the Staatsoper’s previous production, Claudio Abbado had gone for a hybrid, employing much of Shostakovich’s version but stripping away what were deemed to be un-Mussorgskian luxuries).

If the orchestral sound seemed to grow inexorably from beneath the pit, this is more or less literally what happened with the way that the drama in Dodin’s bald, unnaturalistic production was presented. Alexander Borovsky’s set arrayed the action in confined vertical planes, on a pair of gnarly, ramshackle, multi-level, grid-like structures—the bare, dark planks also gently hinting, it seemed, at poorly-made crucifixes—which rose out of the stage floor. Further characters made their appearances out of a central opening downstage. Behind all of this this stood a rough, tan-coloured wall. In an understatedly poetic touch, the grids rose up from a flat position during the prelude, returning to that position and lit to resemble glowing embers once the Old Believers had made their final descent into the stage (the atmospheric lighting was by Damir Ismagilov).

The effect each time as the massed choral ranks materialized impassively from the depths was powerfully disturbing, as was the way the principals stood alone on their own level of the structure, or separated—as was most often the case with Marfa—downstage. Occasionally it bordered on bathos, such as when minor characters popped up and down rather too swiftly, while the Dance of the Persian Slave Girls (choreographed by Yury Borovsky) was also somewhat unconvincing. 

The way in which the principals were, by and large, prevented from interacting, delivering their words to the audience rather than each other, might have irritated some, as might also, conceivably, the closing spectacle of Dosifey, Andrey Khovansky, Marfa and the Old Believers rooted to the spot and stripping down to their white undergarments. For me, however, it only emphasized the disciplined austerity of Dodin’s conception of the piece—its stark, unflinching poetic imagery reflecting the political and personal structures from which its characters are unable to escape. 

As Dosifey, Ain Anger was enormously impressive: a tall, imposing stage presence, he rolled out his phrases in a generous, beautiful bass, mixing dignity and dangerous charisma in his characterization. Ferruccio Furlanetto, in terrific voice, made an authoritative, care-worn Ivan Khovansky, acting with understated nobility. Andrzej Dobber’s dark, menacing Shaklovity was outstanding, sung with smooth, plangent tone. Elena Maximova brought a gorgeously plummy, tangy mezzo to Marfa, whose Act 3 aria—gently adorned by Shostakovich’s jewel-like glockenspiel—was a highlight. Lydia Rathkolb was a vibrant, clear-voiced Susanna. Herbert Lippert was a bitingly emphatic Golitsyn, Norbert Ernst a vivid Scribe, and Christopher Ventris robust as Andrey Khovansky. They, and others I’ve not space to mention, all helped make this a memorable, powerful evening.

Finally to Otto Schenk’s nearly-new Staatsoper production of The Cunning Little Vixen, which opened in June—the veteran director said at the time that it would be his final production for the house—but which was not covered in these pages at the time. On its return in the autumn (seen on November 17), it had to do without Franz Welser-Möst. He was replaced in the pit by Tomáš Netopil, who certainly knew how to bring out all the shimmering, quivering detail of Janáček’s glorious score. He hadn’t quite mastered bringing that out without occasionally overwhelming his singers, however, with some of the exchanges between Chen Reiss’s clear-voiced Vixen and Hyuna Ko’s appealing Fox getting lost in the melee. This was less of an issue for Gerald Finley’s beautifully-sung Forester, who oozed thoughtfulness and gentle melancholy. There were vivid contributions from Donna Ellen as his wife, James Kryshak (Schoolmaster) and Wolfgang Bankl (Harašta); Heinz Zednik made a wonderful (tenor) Rooster.

Schenk’s production is a predictably lavish, old-fashioned affair, in which a vast and extraordinarily realistic forest set (designed by Amra Buchbinder) is a permanent feature—think of the director’s long-serving Met Rusalka minus the pond. There are no scene changes as such, and other locations are evoked with an incongruous sparingness by the straightforward addition of extra scenery downstage. The lavish animal costumes for the children are initially enchanting, but with all the arm-waving and bouncing up and down, the whole thing did risk resembling the world’s most expensive school play. The final minutes are beautifully and powerfully staged as a moment of blinding revelation (with help from Emmerich Steigberger’s lighting), but Schenk’s overall interpretation of the piece, though loving, feels too straightforward, too resolutely bright and bushy-tailed.


Thursday, 1 January 2015

Guildhall School of Music and Drama: The Cunning Peasant

[From OPERA, January 2014, pp. 88-9]

Despite the fact that Rusalka is now a repertory staple, and that The Jacobin gets an occasional airing, Dvořák’s other nine operas still remain out-and-out rarities—this side of Prague, at least. This opportunity to see The Cunning Peasant staged, therefore, was especially welcome.

The piece, composed to a libretto by Josef Otakar Veselý in the first half of 1877, and originally given the altogether more scurrilous title of ‘A Slap for the Prince’, is usually described as a sort of mixture between The Bartered Bride, Le nozze di Figaro and The Jacobin. The arrival of the latter certainly put a major dent in The Cunning Peasant’s popularity, and the two operas share many elements: a rustic setting, true love finally finding its course, and a plot arguably crammed with a few too many elements, as well as a score in which melody after melody tumble over one another. But in the earlier work that plot is slighter (and without The Jacobin’s weightier political element), while Dvořák often also seems less adept at yoking all those folksy tunes to the dramatic action. The piece’s charms, however, are many, and the short second act, with its extended dancing-round-the-maypole sequence, is a delight. It is also a gift for smaller companies or, as here, student performers, with nine decent roles for a cast to get stuck into.

There was certainly a great deal to enjoy in Stephen Medcalf’s production for the Guildhall, even if his decision to transfer the action to rural England raised a few questions. Chief among these was regarding the fact that the wealthy Václav—one of several with an eye on the lovely Bětuška, or Bathsheba as she was here in Clive Timms’s translation—became the Jewish Reuben, his eventual humiliation suddenly taking on unhelpful Beckmesser-like overtones. Nevertheless, in Francis O’Connor’s clever set, in which rustic toy-town houses seemed to morph into nature, the action was clearly and imaginatively conveyed.

The cast—the second of two that the Guildhall presented—was led by Laura Ruhi-Vidal’s charming Bathsheba, sung in a small but appealing and soft-edged soprano. As her beloved Joseph (Jeník), Lawrence Thackery performed persuasively, but showed that his tenor is still a work in progress, as did Robin Bailey as Reuben. Martin Hässler as the Duke (rather than the original’s Prince) seemed nervous, but some intonation problems couldn’t disguise his handsome baritone. David Shipley, as Gabriel (originally Martin, Bathsheba’s mercenary father), was impressive, his bass rounded and full; Emma Kerr was also excellent, unveiling a rich mezzo as his sassy, eye-rolling housekeeper Victoria (Veruna). John Finden, as John, the Duke’s valet, made a very strong impression, his voice full and easy, and his stage manner natural. He was well matched by Anna Gillingham as Fanny (Berta), maid to Alison Langer’s dignified Countess.

Dominic Wheeler’s conducting kept the score skipping merrily along, while also being alert to its moments of more expansive lyricism, and the orchestra played with plenty of verve, underpinning what was ultimately an irresistible evening.

Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse: Ballo in Maschera

From OPERA, January 2015, pp. 52-3

For its new staging of Un ballo in maschera (seen at the third performance, on October 5), the theatre du capitole put its trust in the same creative team behind its 2013 La Favorite. Vincent Boussard’s staging was, it seemed, tailored to a modest budget, and Vincent Lemaire’s minimalist set was basically a blank space, a box within a box. Items of furniture came and went; a recurring motif was the projection, onto the back of the box, of an overexposed 18th-century portrait, which began, at various points, to weep blood. For the brightly-lit, entirely unatmospheric ‘orrido campo’, a ragdoll-like figure hung from the flies. A single welcome flourish came in the final scene with the arrival of a grand, abstract chandelier of thin silvery chains—but it had been quite a long time to wait.

Scenically, then, there was not much to enjoy, and Boussard’s greatest failure was that, rather than make use of a clutter-free space to explore the drama, he appeared content to rely on Christian Lacroix’s costumes for theatricality. Those costumes, however, seemed to have been devised entirely independently of the opera in question: mildly historicized modern dress, a mash-up of suits, overcoats and ruffs for the men. Riccardo, denied any dressing up for his confrontation with Ulrica, had rococo regalia for the first scene and the (maskless) ball itself. Amelia made her Act 2 entrance in a black dress and translucent mac, looking as if she was trying to hail a cab after a night out. The way Boussard dealt with his singers was also a frustrating mixture of under- and over-direction—in the Act 2 duet, Amelia was forced to sing her climactic ‘T’amo’ on her back, feet pointing upstage. What he was trying to say about the piece, or why, was never clear.

There was no such indecisiveness musically speaking. Nor, however, was there much in the way of subtlety or colour. Daniel Oren’s wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am way with the score offered undeniable excitement—and the playing of the Orchestre National du Capitole was lively and virtuosic—but his rubato is a matter more of manhandling than of coaxing, and the big central Riccardo-Amelia duet was more stop-start than ebb-and-flow.

The young Ukrainian tenor Dmytro Popov sang Riccardo with tirelessly bright and vibrant tone, and his voice is big and exciting, with plenty of heft and ring at the top. The photos in the programme of Carlo Bergonzi, who sang the role here in 1955, prompted unfair comparisons, and served to emphasize how Popov, although clearly capable of some subtlety, seemed to treat the assignment primarily as a vocal showcase. Opposite him, Keri Alkema (an American singer whose CV includes both mezzo and soprano roles) didn’t quite have the amplitude for Amelia, and the voice, glamorous-sounding in the middle of the range but short on spinto steel, tended to thin out in the bigger, higher phrases. Vitaliy Bilyy, another Ukrainian, showed plenty of style and musicality as Renato, as well as a nice, pingy top to his baritone, but the voice itself felt a size too small for the role. As Ulrica, Elena Manistina might well have been having an off-night, but she tired quickly after trying to fill out her mezzo beyond its natural size with forced chest voice and pushed top notes. Julia Novikova’s voice sounded occluded early on, meaning that her appealing Oscar lacked initial sparkle. Among the smaller roles, the Brazilian baritone Leonardo Neiva (Samuel) showed that he’s a singer to watch.