Sunday, 1 September 2013

Opera Holland Park: I gioielli della madonna

[From OPERA, September 2013, pp. 1199-1200]

I gioielli della Madonna
Opera Holland Park, July 25
This production of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s hoary, whorey 1911 smash-hit—a work that in many ways represents the apogee of verismo excess—brought Opera Holland Park’s 2013 season back to repertoire that the company has traditionally found rewarding. Certainly, the company pulled out all the stops in staging the piece, fielding an enormous chorus, a beefed-up City of London Sinfonia and child extras from W11 Opera, as well as three principals more than up to the considerable challenges of their roles. 

The overall effect was irresistible, capturing wonderfully, in particular, the visceral noisiness of the crowd scenes, where Wolf-Ferrari brings Naples and its great variety of backstreet human fauna (somewhat laconically, the score lists ‘People, Vendors, Camorrists, Typical Neapolitan Characters, etc., etc.’) to life with imagination and oodles of theatrical chutzpah. The first act must represent one of the most thrilling and sustained Dionysian frenzies in all opera, while the whole thing is a great, chaotic hotchpotch of the composer’s own innovations and influences: a Wagnerian swoon or a Debussian shimmer here, irresistible Pagliacci-like street music there, a dancer in the gang-leader Rafaele’s den who gyrates like Carmen and Salome in one. 

But Wolf-Ferrari has the skill to keep it all together, and his score has enough melodic writing to inspire sympathy, despite the fact that the characters are a pretty unappealing bunch: the weedy Gennaro, in love with his good-for-nothing (apart from the obvious) foster sister Maliella, who in turn has fallen for the gangster Rafaele. In the best verismo tradition, its plot, supposedly based on real-life events, is devoid of anything edifying or redemptive; it also implies a powerful, even daring critique of religion, when Gennaro imagines a sign of forgiveness from the same statue of the Madonna he’s stolen the jewels from. 

Martin Lloyd-Evans’s production updated the action from the time of composition to the 1950s, with Rafaele’s scooter the most noticeable gain. But nothing was lost with the shift, either, and Jamie Vartan’s set—bits and bobs of dirty, graffiti-covered wall and metal cage, assorted crates of oranges—was effective in evoking the sultry, languid underworld, ready, like an urban Vesuvius, to erupt at any moment. The big chorus was directed with considerable skill, with the action effectively switching between realistic hustle and bustle and more stylized tableaux. 

As Maliella, Natalya Romaniw was terrific, bringing a bright, big soprano and generous phrasing to the part and acting the wild-eyed femme fatale convincingly and instinctively. There was not a great deal of subtlety to Olafur Sigurdarson’s Rafaele—I’m not sure the character provides much scope for nuance—but he provided all the strutting machismo one could want, and sang tirelessly. Joel Montero was admirably reliable, too, and brought plenty of heart to Gennaro. Perhaps his slightly fuzzy tenor was not ideally piercing and focused for the role, but he rose to its challenges impressively. Diana Montague was touching as the helpless mother, Carmela, and Luis Gomes stood out in Tontonno’s elegant song in Act 1. The handful of additional small roles were well taken, too.

Peter Robinson did an impressive job keeping all the score’s diverse elements under control, while unleashing wild frenzy as and when it was required; a few rough edges seemed only to add to the effect. All in all, a hugely enjoyable show.

BBC Proms: Der Ring der Nibelungen; Tristan und Isolde

(From OPERA, September 2013, pp. 1196-1199]

Der Ring des Nibelungen and Tristan und Isolde
Staatskapelle Berlin at the BBC Proms, July 22, 23, 26 and 28; BBC Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms, July 27

This Proms performance of the Ring left me grasping for superlatives, but also
grappling with several questions about how to describe what I, sitting among a rapt, packed Royal Albert Hall audience, had experienced. It’s difficult not to be drawn into the sort of critical clichés rooted in 19th-century ideas of patriarchy and cultural superiority that, extrapolated ad absurdum, arguably fuelled the ideology that left Wagner’s reputation so indelibly tarnished: to speak of a Great Conductor’s mastery of a score, for example, or to admire the incomparable Austro-German culture that could spawn and—through public subsidy of the arts as necessity rather than luxury—maintain an orchestra like the Staatskapelle Berlin, for which the Ring is a repertory staple. Certainly, the programming of not a single Verdi opera against seven by Wagner seems to have left little doubt regarding which side of the Alps the Proms management’s allegiance lies, even if this Ring did in part back up Roger Wright’s reasoning for the bias: that it’s easier these days to cast Wagner than Verdi. 

Paradoxically, however, Daniel Barenboim’s conducting, with the delicate, transparent playing of his orchestra enabling an approach of apparently endless fluidity and flexibility, produced a genuinely revelatory performance that seemed to allow the monumental drama to shed all the subsequent historical associations that still form a staple of the more populist discourse on the composer and his work. But even with the semi-est of semi-stagings—props had to be conjured in the imagination, and the director Justin Way wisely restricted himself to encouraging straightforward, instinctual interaction between the characters and making sensible decisions regarding exits and entrances—we also seemed to have a performance that was more powerfully dramatic and thought-provoking than half a dozen stagings. Preconceptions of how the elements of the Gesamtkunstwerk are kept in equilibrium were left shattered: do music and words alone, unencumbered by a production, create the most satisfying dramatic experience after all?  

That there was no sense of anything missing here was in large part due to a very fine cast, but it was also down to the extraordinarily broad expressive palette Barenboim had at his disposal, which early on in Das Rheingold ran the gamut from the tenderest lingering evocation of human love to the brutal, savage horror of its antithesis—no need to amplify this with images of industrialization. And throughout, Barenboim explored these extremes: Sennu Laine’s exquisite cello solos in Walküre Act 1 were impossibly hushed, and the violins accompanied Siegfried’s ascent to the Walkürenfels with awed quiet; storms—literal and metaphorical—materialized with truly elemental power. 

The interpretation teemed with detail, but never as a result of fussy micromanagement; with the orchestra able to follow Barenboim’s every command, there was thrilling spontaneity and a bracing sense of interpretative freedom, but never at the expense of the longer paragraphs. The Magic Fire music breathed delicately, the Forest Murmurs were seductive whisperings, Brünnhilde’s awakening in Siegfried was viscerally ecstatic. Götterdämmerung’s final act, meanwhile, was simply overwhelming, the long silence Barenboim maintained at the close unlikely to be forgotten by anyone who was there.

Nina Stemme’s imperiously sung and beautifully, movingly human Brünnhilde headed the cast, growing in stature from a slightly restrained performance in Walküre through to something truly great in the final two instalments. She acted with economy and nobility, and rode magnificently over the orchestra, particularly in an all-conquering Immolation Scene, sung from in front of the organ at the back of the stage. Andreas Schager’s sensational Götterdämmerung Siegfried, sung with both power and vocal allure, matched her in a way that Lance Ryan’s young Siegfried, light and slightly grating of tone, didn’t quite manage to, despite his impressive staying power and dramatic persuasiveness. 

Iain Paterson was an appealing, smoothly sung Rheingold Wotan, and Bryn Terfel was somewhat rougher in Die Walküre, but grippingly dramatic and authoritative; Terje Stensvold’s Wanderer struck an effective balance somewhere between the two. Simon O’Neill’s Siegmund remains too tight-voiced to be ideal, and couldn’t match Anja Kampe’s gloriously unfettered Sieglinde. Johannes Martin Kränzle was a brilliantly vivid Alberich; Peter Bronder’s Mime was every bit as good, and benefited from a brighter, edgier voice. Eric Halfvarson slightly overdid the scowling and snarling as Hunding, but his big, dark bass was welcome both here and as Fafner. By contrast, Mikhail Petrenko’s light-voiced Hagen was disappointing, as was the shrill Anna Samuil as Freia and Gutrune; Gerd Grochowski did what he could with Gunther. Anna Larsson was magnificent as Erda, and Ekaterina Gubanova made an imperious Fricka; Waltraud Meier gave a predictably fine cameo as Waltraute in Götterdämmerung

In Rheingold, Stephan Rügamer had been an unusually grainy-voiced Loge, but was dramatically effective in his irascibility. Jan Buchwald’s high-lying but penetrating baritone made a strong impression as Donner; Marius Vlad and Stephen Milling made solid contributions, respectively, as a bright-voiced Froh and an unusually sensitive Fasolt. Singing from the back of the choir, Rinnat Moriah’s Woodbird sounded glorious in Siegfried. There were mellifluous Rhinemaidens (Aga Mikolaj, Maria Gortsevskaya and Anna Lapkovskaja) and lusty Valkyries (Sonja Mühleck, Carola Höhn, Ivonne Fuchs, Anaïk Morel, Susan Foster, Leann Sandel-Pantaleo, Lapkovskaja and Simone Schröder); Margarita Nekrasova joined Meier and Samuil to complete the Norns. The Royal Opera Chorus made a sterling contribution in the tetralogy’s final instalment.

There were a couple of mishaps in Die Walküre, and some moments—in the stifling heat of the Albert Hall for Rheingold, and as we approached the End in Götterdämmerung—when one could detect small signs of very understandable fatigue in the orchestra. But let’s hope none of these—not to mention Wotan-like contractual difficulties—preclude the possibility of the cycle being released on CD. Astonishingly, it was the first time Barenboim had conducted Wagner in this country, and there was a sense that the bar for performances of the composer’s works here had been raised. With the Proms seeming to feature more and more opera, too, I couldn’t help wondering whether this visit from the Berlin Staatskapelle might be followed by operatic visits from other orchestras that London usually hears only in symphonic repertoire—maybe Thielemann’s Staatskapelle Dresden or the Vienna Philharmonic, both natural choices for next year’s Strauss anniversary. 

One of those bands might have relished the challenge of performing Tristan und Isolde between the final two instalments of the Barenboim Ring more than one imagines the BBC Symphony Orchestra did. In theory, the programming was justifiable in terms of the rough chronology of Wagner’s works, but in reality it seemed a loopy idea—and why not throw in a Meistersinger, too, since that was also written in the caesura between Acts 2 and 3 of Siegfried

Nevertheless, Semyon Bychkov conducted a spacious, always interesting account of the work, and the BBCSO played out of their skins. Violeta Urmana brought imperious command to Isolde, and Robert Dean Smith, taking over after Peter Seiffert pulled out, was a reliable Tristan. Neither, however, displayed much emotional range, reflecting little of the extremes that the piece is all about; despite the fact that it was semi-staged much as the Ring had been (Daniel Dooner was credited as ‘production adviser’), there was no similar sense of drama. Mihoko Fujimura was slightly out of sorts as Brangaene, the voice short on focus. Boaz Daniel’s Kurwenal was well sung but seemed unwilling to plumb the depths in the way that Kwangchul Youn’s moving King Marke did. Andrew Staples was a sweet-voiced Sailor and Shepherd, David Wilson-Johnson an emphatic Melot, and there was stirring work from the men of the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus. The performance ultimately highlighted the difference between an opera-house orchestra and a symphony orchestra, however, with the voices often drowned out and Bychkov casting too many encouraging looks in the direction of the brass.