Friday, 26 September 2014

WNO: Guillaume Tell; ROH: Barbiere

[From The Spectator, September 27]

Is there a fundamental, insuperable problem with staging Rossini’s Guillaume Tell on a budget, without the resources to conjure up the sense of scale that was part of grand opéra’s appeal and raison d’être? Take away the special effects, whip away the phantasmagorical curtain, and, as with any Hollywood blockbuster, you are left with a modest little plot whirring away at its centre. In Tell, this involves the love between Arnold and Mathilde across a national divide. It’s the struggle of the Swiss — in a time before neutrality and cuckoo clocks — against their Austrian oppressors that, along with the Alps, forms the backdrop.

[continue reading here]

Friday, 19 September 2014

ENO: Otello

Benjamin Britten, when seeing his Peter Grimes at La Scala, wrote with a touch of glee that performing the work in Italian made it sound like Otello. It’s interesting to wonder what Verdi would have made, then, of David Alden’s new staging of his penultimate opera at the Coliseum, performed, of course, in English. Certainly, with Alden’s Grimes—also starring Stuart Skelton—still fresh in the mind from last season, the parallels seemed unavoidable. And even Jonathan Summer’s Iago shared a leather coat, if not quite the genuine sinisterness, with Matthew Rose’s chilling Claggart in Alden’s 2012 Billy Budd .

On this occasion, though, neither the set (by Jon Morrell)—moveable blocks of imposing, run-down grandeur with hints of a rubble-strewn wasteland beyond—nor, more broadly, the setting seemed much suited to the work in hand. For a start, as I understand it, Otello is primarily about emotional battles being fought once military battles have been won: the attendant peace and lack of activity making for the idle minds that Iago’s devil can exploit; the delineation between Otello’s nobility on the battlefield and his emotional immaturity and insecurity off it is at the heart of the drama. Here he stumbled out of battle less victorious than already broken, and seemed strangely unconcerned by the chaos that—Alden's almost dystopian setting suggested—persisted around him. His essential otherness, meanwhile, seems to insist entirely of a certain awkwardness in his manner. 

Disconsolate and nervy, Skelton's Otello was an unconvincing military leader, and, as a result, his fall from grace lost much of its wider resonance. (Was that why ‘Ora e per sempre addio’ was sluggish and internalised?) Without any initial composure, this Otello had nowhere to go, resorting to strange contortions, furniture throwing and the like. Similarly, with all the loss of pomp and grandeur surrounding him, his fall lost context; and I’m not entirely sure what was being said by having the chorus in Act 3 appear as regulation uptight-community scowlers and tutters—were they to be understood as somehow complicit in Otello’s downfall? Although they play an important role (and the ENO chorus was here on terrific form), this mass is surely there more to set the scene for the drama than to participate in it. 

Stuart Skelton in ENO's new Otello (photo: Alastair Muir)

Summers's Iago was shot through with the same run-down weariness that seemed to characterise the whole thing, often, it seemed, going through the motions joylessly and without much of the sadistic glee that we often see. His voice is in good nick, but is smooth in timbre, without bite. Skelton's voice—magnificent though it is—is similarly short on required edge, making for a slight lack of definition between them. Otherwise Skelton made a very decent stab at the role, taking its challenges largely in his stride, even if his interpretation was held back, I feel, by the production. It will be fascinating to hear how he grows into the part; and I, for one, can't wait to hear him tackle it in Italian. His enunciation of Tom Phillip's workmanlike translation here, though, was impeccable. 

Funnily enough, it was Leah Crocetto's Desdemona (the character's name incidentally retaining its stress, as in Italian, on the second 'e') who brought some vocal edge to proceedings. The American soprano sang the role in a big, vibrant voice that could be exciting, even if it made for a distinctly unangelic heroine. She seemed the least comfortable with singing in English, though, and, like her husband, was robbed of nobility by the production—particularly in a final act that couldn't make up its mind between realism and stylisation. Allan Clayton was excellent as a Cassio reduced, after his initial fall, to an alcoholic. As, respectively, a half-fop, half-spiv Roderigo and a tweed-clad, bespectacled Emilia, Peter Van Hulle and Pamela Helen Stephen could easily have wandered in from the nightmarish Borough of Alden's Grimes

The qualities one expects from Edward Gardner were there in abundance. There was precision and conviction in his conducting, and and a very high standard of execution from an ENO orchestra that has improved immeasurably during his tenure. But, like the production, it was a reading of Verdi's score that seemed to lose the depth, delicacy and grandeur, and which was also short on nuance at times (the introduction to Act 4 struck me as rather unloving). Although this team always brings a certain high standard to what it does, on this occasion I couldn't but feel disappointed by the result—an Otello that, worryingly, failed to leave me as moved, let alone poleaxed, as it should.

[Finally, if you'll excuse me, a plug for the new ENO/Overture Guide to 'Otello', for which I wrote a performance history. It's currently available only in the Coliseum foyer before the shows, and in the Royal Opera House shop, but will be available from the usual other outlets soon.]

Monday, 1 September 2014

Royal Opera: Ariadne auf Naxos

[From OPERA, September 2014, pp. 1149-50]

Ariadne auf Naxos
Royal Opera at Covent Garden, June 25
With this revival of Christof Loy’s 2002 Ariadne auf Naxos—the third of three of the Hofmannsthal operas presented in the 2013-14 season—the Royal Opera’s modest celebration of the Strauss year came to a conclusion. The performances also marked something of a celebration for Antonio Pappano, returning to the first production he conducted as the Royal Opera’s music director, not long after having announced the extension of his contract at Covent Garden. 

It remains a smart show, and Loy himself was back to direct this fourth revival, keeping much of the comedy sharp. Yet I wonder how much of a hand he had in directing Karita Mattila, who was singing Ariadne for the first time, but in large part, one felt, simply playing herself. The result was a fascinating performance from the Finnish diva, whose haughtiness in the Prologue was deliciously funny, but who in the Opera never quite shed the Prima Donna character, creating an unusual continuity between the evening’s two parts. But while there was a compelling intensity and charisma, of course, there was little sense of vulnerability and insecurity, or, as a result, of the character’s all-important transformation. Vocally, too, there were rough edges at the top and bottom, and signs of wear and tear could occasionally be heard all through the range. Artistic generosity is what Mattila’s Ariadne offers, not cool serenity and purity of line.

She was well supported by the rest of the cast, not least by a Bacchus from Roberto Saccà whose slight dryness of tone was more than compensated for by rare elegance and stamina. Jane Archibald was impressively on top of Zerbinetta’s notes, too, rattling through ‘Grossmächtige Prinzessin’ with considerable virtuosity, even if the voice might ideally have had a little extra sparkle and ping. Ruxandra Donose was impassioned and impulsive as the composer should be, and sang with spirit and commitment, but her mezzo is maybe a touch small for the role in this house. Sofia Fomina (no mean Zerbinetta herself, by all accounts), Karen Cargill and Kiandra Howarth made an unusually fine trio as Naiad, Dryad and Echo; Ed Lyon and Thomas Allen were well contrasted as a mischievous, mincing Dancing Master and pragmatic, mellow Music Master. Markus Werba’s Harlekin lacked charm, but Christoph Quest brought an authentically Austrian superciliousness to the Major Domo. 

In the pit, Pappano coaxed extremely fine playing from the reduced Royal Opera orchestra, and conducted with pleasing flexibility, keeping the to-ing and fro-ing of the Prologue, in particular, light on its feet. On the first night, though, not all the transitions between the comic and serious were as seamlessly handled as they might have been, and I missed some of the magic in the final pages. One further gripe: the surtitles—more simplistic précis than translation—felt a touch insulting to the intelligence of both the librettist and the audience.

Dresden Festival: Feuersnot; Semperoper: Simon Boccanegra

[From OPERA, September 2014, pp. 1110-12]

Within a matter of weeks, the Saxon capital witnessed a new production of Simon Boccanegra and a rare outing for Strauss’s Feuersnot. It seemed strange, however, that the latter, in a performance given under the auspices of the Dresden Festival but billed as a co-production with the Semperoper, employed few of Dresden’s prime Straussian assets—neither the Semperoper (where the piece was premiered in 1901), the Staatskapelle, nor even Christian Thielemann, one of today’s great Strauss conductors. The different sources of funding for the festival and the opera house—the Stadt funds the former, the Staat the latter—is apparently to blame for a relationship between the two entities that is somewhat short on useful symbiosis.

Verdi, however, certainly benefited from the full Semperoper treatment, and at the third performance of Jan Philip Gloger’s new production (June 3) the musical values were extraordinarily high. Thielemann translated the virtues that distinguish his conducting of the German repertoire—weight allied to transparency, a pervading sense of expansiveness that doesn’t preclude, when necessary, the whipping up of stormy drama—into the different musical language of Verdi’s brooding score with remarkable success.

He was aided by playing from his orchestra of the most exquisite refinement and patrician virtuosity, which suggests that their performances of Cav and Pag (very different works, admittedly) at Salzburg next Easter will be something to look forward to. There, however, they won’t have the advantage of the Semperoper’s astonishing acoustic, in which voices are able to project cleanly and clearly over an orchestral sound that is warm, and entirely unrestricted in bloom, clarity and detail.

There were some fine singers to take advantage of this, with a cast headed by the ardent, passionately sung Amelia of Maria Agresta. Here is a voice of uninhibited lyrical beauty, used with generosity and dramatic conviction. As her Adorno, Ramón Vargas initially sounded stretched and a little uncomfortable, but as the performance progressed—and especially in the second act—the voice gained an impressive ringing authority. More problematic was Željko Lučić’s Boccanegra, sung with smooth tone but undermined by wayward intonation that often meant he was distressingly flat. One of the performance’s distinguishing features was the fact that Thielemann encouraged introspection from both Lučić and Kwangchul Youn (as an imposing, if not ideally legato Fiesco), the only times when his interpretation risked feeling too slow.

Gloger’s production was something of a disappointment: a generic, well-executed selection of stock Regie devices without any compelling idea to hold them together. Christof Hetzer’s impressive, rotating unit set consisted of several angular spaces on different levels; it was home to a cast—including a threatening-mob chorus—in modern dress, plus multiple doubles of different ages for the principals, whose wanderings on and off were triggered (to increasingly predictable effect) by key words in the libretto. There were striking images, with Bernd Purkabek’s lighting creating some welcome effects to cut through the pervading gloom, but the pleasures here were primarily musical.

The performance of Feuersnot took place a stone’s throw from the city’s famous opera house, in the courtyard of the residenz, only recently opened up as a usable public space. There was a large stage to house both (on the left-hand side) the Dresden Festival Orchestra—a recently-founded period band whose remit seems to cover several centuries—and (on the right) a large playing area; the Semperoper chorus was arrayed behind. That the first night (June 7) took place in the middle of a heatwave was not only a relief for the (uncovered) audience, but also appropriate for an opera—a satirical pendant, in some ways, to Wagner’s Meistersinger—that’s all about the intoxication of midsummer. It’s also a richly melodic and brilliantly orchestrated work, behind whose satirical intent lies a trenchant critique of bourgeois morality and its hypocritical tendencies.

Philosophically, then, the work paves the way for the masterpieces that would follow; but it does so musically, too, with several hints of Salome, as well as some gloriously boisterous waltzes à la Rosenkavalier. Under Stefan Klingele’s galvanizing musical leadership, it came across thrillingly as well; there might have been a hint of incongruous abstemiousness in the light vibrato of the orchestra’s not terribly numerous strings, but there was no sense of any of the players holding back otherwise.

As Kunrad, the first of Strauss’s thinly-veiled autobiographical baritone roles, Tómas Tómasson had a robustness that served him well, but which was allied to stiffness—in both voice and manner—that made the character rather more ernst than I’m sure Strauss or his librettist, Ernst von Wolzogen, required. By contrast, Rachel Willis-Sørensen’s shiningly lyrical soprano was matched by a persuasive sense of mischief in her characterization of Diemut. Her trio of friends—with hints of both Wagner’s Rhinemaidens and Strauss’s own subsequent Ariadne nymphs—were sung with relish by Angela Liebold (Elsbeth), Simone Schröder (Wigelis) and Carolina Ullrich (Margret). The rest of the large cast was excellent.

One reason for Feuersnot’s rarity is the particularly difficult children’s choruses, all to be delivered—like much of the score—in pun-laden Munich dialect. Here the Kinderchor der Singakademie Dresden was strategically peppered with some of the more youthful-looking members of the excellent Semperoper chorus to provide a perfect balance of security and youthful exuberance.

The modest semi-staging itself (realized by Angela Brandt) made clever use of the space at hand and was largely simple and effective, even if the use of younger doubles of Kunrad and Diemut brought more confusion than clarity. Nothing could detract, though, from a wonderfully invigorating and enjoyable event.

Oper Leipzig: Die Frau ohne Schatten; Die Feen

[From OPERA, September 2014, 1114-6]

Richard Strauss seems to be one of only a few composers with whom Leipzig can’t boast a real connection. Nevertheless, Oper Leipzig threw itself into Die Frau ohne Schatten for the composer’s anniversary year—a major challenge for a company of this size, and one that was by and large brilliantly met. A propitious piece of programming on the management’s part also enabled a side-by-side comparison between Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s work and Wagner’s first opera, Die Feen (in a revival of Renaud Doucet’s production, new for the city’s Wagner celebrations last year).

The two works share a source in Gozzi’s La donna serpente, but offer fascinatingly different ‘happy endings’: for Wagner in 1834, the human Arindal, King of Tramond, joins the fairy kingdom as one of them; for Strauss and Hofmannsthal, eight decades later, it would all be about the half-fairy Empress becoming fully human. The vexed question of fertility and childbirth plays little role in the Wagner, in which Arindal and the fairy Ada have already produced a brace of offspring. Further links come in the fact that Strauss himself was involved in Die Feen’s first performance in Munich five years after its composer’s death; ultimately, though, Hofmannsthal seems to have been more interested in the Gozzi directly (along with his other dozens of sources), rather than Gozzi distilled through the 24-year-old Wagner.

Doucet’s production has already been reviewed in these pages (see June 2013, pp. 761-2) and had lost some of its tightness by the time of this revival, with a couple of mishaps in the staging and the Gewandhausorchester, in the pit, needing the best part of Act 1 to unite under Matthias Foremny’s baton (June 27). Any opportunity to hear this rarity in the theatre, however, is welcome, even if it does tend to suggest that the appeal of some undeniable musical riches cannot balance out the fearful demands made on the leading couple. And, even with considerable cuts, it remains a long, sprawling evening, whose dramaturgy was not helped by Doucet’s ‘meta’ staging (the whole thing playing out in the mind of a snoozing father figure listening to a radio performance of the piece).

Nevertheless, Christiane Libor, despite an occasional hint of shrillness in the voice, sailed confidently and apparently untiringly through the role of Ada, and David Danholdt, Arindal in Chelsea Opera Group’s performance last March, showed he now has the treacherous role—more thankless even than Strauss’s Emperor—under his control, singing in a clean if smallish Heldentenor. Most of the other roles in the large cast were filled with ensemble singers, with Paula Rummel standing out as a delightful Drolla.

Things were a great deal tighter the following evening for the fourth appearance of the Hungarian director Balász Kovalik’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. Ulf Schirmer, enforcing the cuts favoured by his mentor Karl Böhm, drew powerful playing from a Gewandhaus-orchester on terrific form, its players sounding sumptuous and refined together, while displaying their quality individually in the solos. There was some fabulous singing, too, not least a fearless, tireless Empress from Simone Schneider, whose rich, almost mezzo-like soprano met the demands of the role with extraordinary control. She managed both to pick out the tricky avian coloratura of her opening scene cleanly and to go on to hit the fearsome top D flats and Cs in Acts 2 and 3 with power and apparent ease, and filled out what went on in between with unfailingly beautiful and rich tone.

The production itself teemed with ideas—some good, some less good, and perhaps rather too many overall. In Heike Scheele’s lavish sets, Kovalik makes a distinction between a half-palace, half-asylum upper sphere and a strikingly-recreated, sordid contemporary townscape of flashing neon signs below. There the Dyer’s Wife is obsessed with celebrity: the image the Nurse conjured up for her was one of waltzing couples at an Opera Ball; in a cleverly and amusingly realized vignette, the Nurse steps into a TV studio to become a celebrity chef for the cooking of the fish; and the couple’s bedroom itself is positioned within a large TV set.

In Act 2, we see a different projection of happiness from Barak, with the opening feast becoming a sort of Biedermeier Last Supper. The relationship between the couples was less clear-cut, with the Emperor and the Youth apparently one and the same; the former straitjacketed in Act 3, the latter pulled around in a carriage by S&M minions in Act 2. It was executed with great flair and technical skill, but the welcome playfulness and even irreverence that informed some of the earlier scenes felt out of place as we progressed into an increasingly muddled final act, culminating, rather glibly, in a profusion of prams at the work’s climax.

As for the rest of the cast, Jennifer Wilson, unflatteringly dressed in Act 1 in a costume apparently modelled after a Battenburg cake, took a while to warm up, and the voice is perhaps a little more soft-grained than ideal for the character, but she was able fully to sing her role in the way that Färberinnen now, thankfully, are expected to. Doris Soffel’s red-suited and -coiffed Nurse was terrifically vivid. Burkhard Fritz’s Emperor was solid and reliable, as was Thomas J. Meyer’s Barak. There was fine work from members of the Leipzig ensemble, including Eun Yee You as the voice of the Falcon, which was embodied on stage as a young boy (Tim Englehardt). A fair bit was baffling, but, all in all, this Frau was a very fine achievement.

Finally, a brief mention of the Gewandhausorchester’s Verdi Requiem the next day (June 29), the fruit of Schirmer’s desire to have an annual showcase for the orchestra in concert at the opera house, rather than just at the Gewandhaus across the square. Anthony Bramall conducted a taut and exciting account, with the players and chorus on thrilling form. The soloists were Viktoria Yastrebova (a Leipzig Tosca), Marianna Pizzolato, Aquiles Machado and Milcho Borovinov (a member of the ensemble, and also an estimable Gernot in Die Feen).