Friday, 19 December 2014

Un ballo in maschera and Tristan und Isolde at the ROH

Ever since the announcement was made that the Royal Opera House would entrust a new production of Un ballo in maschera to Katharina Thoma, whose 2013 Ariadne auf Naxos at Glyndebourne had been widely disliked, there had been a certain amount of speculation as to, first, what she'd done to deserve a new Covent Garden production and, second, what she'd make of Verdi's tricky middle-period work. Would we get another dubious concept? Would the cast--a big-voiced bunch, but hardly the most willing or adventurous thesps--be happy to play along with what she'd come up with? More generally: should a theatre like Covent Garden should be entering into a morganatic marriage with an outfit like Theater Dortmund (and I don't mean any offence to Dortmunders there), where the production was unveiled in September?

In fact, it's interesting to read in Der Westen's review of the Dortmund premiere how the fact that it was co-produced with a major house was held responsible for it being, according to the reviewer, 'backward and ridiculous'. 'Because Covent Garden is a star-theatre and a fossilized/frozen theatre as well ["Star-Theater und starres Theater dazu"]. If you want to have the Netrebkos and Garancas, the Grigolos and Callejas as nearly daily visitors, to fill the house with tourists, you're not going to take risks.' (You can read the piece -- auf Deutsch -- here.)

Un ballo in maschera at Covent Garden with (centre, left to right) Serena Gamberoni (Oscar),
Joseph Calleja (Riccardo) and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Renato) (Photo © Catherine Ashmore)

It's an unfair view, perhaps, and it's difficult to know to what extent Thoma was indeed trying to pander to what she perceived to be the requirements of Covent Garden. What she delivered achieved perhaps one notable thing -- it wasn't booed at the curtain call as a string of the Royal Opera's new productions have been. That, in itself, is perhaps no great achievement, however, and reflects, if anything, the production's convictionless conservatism. (I've maintained before that the Covent Garden booers have in the past reacted to quality rather than simply booing anything 'modern', but this seemed to prove that I have, after all, being giving them too much credit.)

But what we saw had no place on the Royal Opera's stage: a fusty, half-hearted compromise conceptually speaking, marred by stagecraft more inept, I think, than anything I've seen on the Royal Opera Stage--certainly for a long time. As with her Glyndebourne Ariadne, Thoma chose to update the action to the eve of war, in this instance positioning Riccardo as, I think, a Habsburg on the eve of WWI, the conspirators as Balkan troublemakers. As at Glyndebourne, however, the updating had little to do with the opera in question, and seemed, once more, like a somewhat crass attempt to syphon some gravitas off from an historical moment (of the most monumental significance) to bestow profundity on her own concept (which is of rather lesser significance). The final gesture of giving Oscar an army coat and tin helmet, presumably ready for him to be shipped off to the trenches, struck me, in this regard, as in very poor taste.

Other ideas came an went, with the set (by Soutra Gilmour) -- the main feature was pair of wobbly chunks of scenery on castors, which contained the action in between them while offering rooms for additional unnecessary details on their outer sides -- moved and removed into various configurations. One feature was human statues (we were metres from Covent Garden piazza, after all) in the sort-of graveyard of the 'Orrido campo'; this tendency to memorialization (a fetish of the Habsburgs, of course) was emphasized by Ricccardo being manhandled onto a large marble-ish plinth (wobbly once more) for his death.

Liudmyla Monastyrska as Amelia (Photo © Catherine Ashmore)
There were dodgy dancing (choreographed by Lucy Burge), dodgy costumes (designed by Irina Bartels), and plenty of superfluous bits and bobs. During Riccardo's 'Forse la soglia attinse' there was some fussy business with him imagining a confrontation with the human statues; a little boy, the son of Renato and Amelia, made several distracting appearances. The whole thing was so poorly thought through, though, that a central gauze had to go up and down in the middle of scenes and lackeys were required to stroll on and off to remove bits of furniture and push the set around. Worst of all, it all looked several decades old: it felt like the umpteenth revival of a dusty production that a company has been itching to ditch for years.

This impression was reinforced by conducting from Daniel Oren that was crude and insensitive and which--as when chorus and orchestra parted company for several bars in the final act--sometimes flirted with something closer to basic incompetence. Big moments passed for nothing, much was rushed and messy--there was little sense that the conductor liked the music at all. This seeped through into the playing, much of which was depressingly brash and unrefined.

In this context, the big-name cast seemed like it was left to fend for itself. Joseph Calleja's unusual tenor always walks a line between strange bleatiness and glorious freedom and expressiveness, but seemed here more firmly rooted in the former category, the very top, in particular, showing a rasping quality I'd noticed when he sang Faust earlier in the year, but which I'd hoped was down to temporary indisposition (I hope those 'Nessun dormas' haven't taken their toll on this essentially lyrical instrument). His phrasing was lumpy and foursquare, he often rushed, and, without much direction, his acting was exposed as almost comically rudimentary.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky did his usual thing, but the loss of sap in the middle of his voice is more noticeable now, even if the top remains generous and burnished. There was plenty of quality in Liudmyla Monarstyrska's Amelia, the quiet singing in particular, but her top is rawer than it once was, and there wasn't much acting from her either. Marianne Cornetti chewed the scenery enthusiastically as Ulrica, but her vocalism was pretty rough and ready. Arguably the most charming performance was that of Serena Gamberoni as Oscar, sparky and engaging and sung in a voice with ping and also some appealing lyrical beauty. There was some good work in the supporting roles, but this was an unequivocally grim evening at the Royal Opera.

Certainly it was difficult to believe that this was being presented by the same company that had performed Christof Loy's Tristan the evening before (I'd been away so was only able to catch up with it then). I'll be brief, but I should admit I was left unmoved by the performance -- perhaps something to do with my seat, at the front of the amphitheatre round to the right, perpendicular with the wall stage-right, which seemed to amplify the singers' voices rather unpleasantly -- but at least there was quality and conviction in spades.

But I'm still unconvinced by Pappano's conducting of this piece, which remains, I feel, more physical than metaphysical, and am never going to like Loy's production, even if I think I admire parts of it more now than I did first time round. The singing of the leading couple is astonishing, though: Nina Stemme's Isolde, although the voice (from my seat at least) is losing some of its allure, is imperious; Stephen Gould's Tristan is tireless and musical. I particularly enjoyed Iain Paterson's Kurwenal, too, but--as others have noted--Sarah Connolly's big moment (Brangäne's watch) was somewhat undermined by her positioning on stage. Plenty of quality in the rest of the cast, too. I'll hold my tongue regarding John Tomlinson's King Marke.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Falstaff and Turandot at the Deutsche Oper

I'm currently on a quick research trip in Berlin, during which time I've taken the opportunity to pay a first visit -- or, rather, two -- to the Deutsche Oper. The repertoire I sampled was central; the productions were more left-field. With the Falstaff it was good to be reminded that Christof Loy can do comedy; there won't be much of that when I catch up next week with his Royal Opera Tristan. (He's a director whose work I have generally not greatly enjoyed: after a first encounter with the Royal Opera Ariadne, I really didn't like the Tristan first time round, missed the Lulu, but really took against his cop-out 2011 Salzburg Frau, which, along with his po-faced and drearily ernst Barcelona Entführung, I have seen only on DVD.)

Christof Loy's 'Falstaff' at the Deutsche Oper (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel)

Anyway, his Falstaff, new last November, makes a fascinating comparison to Damiano Michielletto's production from the 2013 Salzburg Festival. Both take the same starting point, with a reference to the Casa di Riposo in Milan that Verdi set up for retired singers and musicians. Michielletto's production deals unimaginatively with this idea, letting it -- and a fixed single set -- constrain the drama. (There's a disapproving review from me in a forthcoming Gramophone -- I can't say I thought much of it), Loy lets the action run riot on an open stage. Bits of minimal scenery come and go, the exception being a large, grand wall that appears (then is whisked up) at the start of Act 3, separating a disconsolate Falstaff, left nursing his wounds in a suitcase-strewn wasteland at the very front of the stage, from the rest of the 'cast', dressed up and clinking glasses in the bright, clean space on the other side.

Production details
I put 'cast' in inverted commas, because it's a production that constantly suggests multiple levels of performance. It also seems to pick away at its own central concept, questioning and even undercutting it. The evening starts with from a witty film (accompanied by Victor Maurel's 1907 recording of 'Quand'ero paggio') in grainy black and white, which dissolves leaving Kiril Manolov's lank-haired Falstaff singing the same arietta at the piano before the opera proper kicks off.  The singers are at first dressed up to look like Casa di Riposo residents, then remove wigs and fusty outfits to show their more youthful selves beneath. The action is presented as part performed, part lived, the line between the two entirely porous. During the final ensemble, everyone -- chorus included -- finds wigs, slacks and cardis in the suitcases that have been lying about. By the final curtain, as a Verdi portrait is brought on (much as it had been, if memory serves, in Michielletto's staging), everyone's back to being 'old' again.

I'd admit I'm not entirely sure what Loy's point is, and it was inevitable that, in the context, the magic of Herne's Oak was somewhat lost, but I'd much rather this looser approach to a concept that Michielletto's straitjacketed one: the fluidity, the unpredictability and, even, the slightly chaotic bafflingness of it all appealed to me. Here's a trailer to give an idea:

It helped, of course, to have a good musical performance. Stefan Solyom conducted a straightforward account of the score -- slightly tentative tempos in the zippier ensembles was perhaps due to a lack of rehearsal time in the house's busy repertoire system. As London heard in Salome at this year's Proms, the orchestra is a very classy band, producing a rich sound but capable of necessary agility and lightness of touch.

There was a fine cast, with Manolov (a name new to me) combining a big, leonine baritone and larger-than-life, bear-like physical presence -- only a hint of old-world charm was lacking. Elena Tsallagova was a charming, slightly geeky Nannetta, well matched by Alvaro Zambrano's Fenton. Maria Pia Piscitella's rich soprano made her a fine Alice, and Dana Beth Miller was an impressively fruity Mrs Quickly. John Chest's Ford was well focused, if a probably a size or two too small, and Marko Mimica's resonant, powerfully-sung Pistola stood out among some fine performances from the rest of the cast (click the thumbnail right for a full list).

Turandot at the Deutsche Oper (photo © Bettina Stöß)
Another name new to me was that of Lorenzo Fioroni, a protégé of Ruth Berghaus and Götz Friedrich, who provided the production of Turandot, dating originally from 2008. His view is a brutal and cruel one, in which much of the action seems choreographed by the aged, almost benign Altoum (Peter Maus, dressed in the grey suit favoured by some dictators). He appears, along with a handful of other doddery dignitaries to watch from a rectangular viewing gallery set into a wall. In front, the oppressed, cowering 'Popolo di Pekino' sing his praises -- at one powerful moment, one woman stood defiantly looking the opposite way, only to be beaten into submission as the paean recommenced.

Turandot becomes a slightly petulant princess, her riddling with Calaf played out down stage as a face-off (shades of Minnie vs Rance, without the poker) over a small table. Once she finally succumbs to love, she murders her father; Calaf, in turn, dispatches poor old Timur. It's all pretty heartless in the final act, where the scope for mischievous humour seems to be exhausted -- much of it stemming from Ping, Pang and Pong, here (in a touch coincidentally reminiscent of Loy's Falstaff) repeatedly dressing up to play their roles in the 'entertainment'. Again, I'm not sure it amounted to anything terribly coherent, but it certainly had its compelling moments.

Musically speaking, the greatest pleasure probably came from the magnificent Deutsche Oper chorus, and there singing was matched by fine playing once more from the orchestra -- even if Ivan Repušić's conducting was pretty broad-brush and four-square. Kamen Chanev was a stentorian Calaf, the voice impressively ringing and trumpety, although lacking in much Italianate honey; a certain unflinching machismo in his stage manner was not unsuited to Fioroni's conception.

Catherine Foster, Bayreuth's current Brünnhilde and a British singer who's carved out an impressive career in Germany, had quite a lot of dodgy moments intonation-wise as Turandot, and the voice seems to take some time to warm up -- both during the course of an evening and, strangely enough, during the course of some notes. In full flight, though, it's an impressive sound, and the lack of steely edge is in some way made up by a softness in the timbre that suggests this Turandot's heart has gone some way to thawing from the start. Heidi Stober brought a highly attractive, gently lyrical voice to her sympathetic Liù, and Simon Lim an impressive, powerful if also rather soft-grained bass to Timur.

Monday, 1 December 2014

ETO: Life on the Moon

Hackney Empire, October 17

[From OPERA, December 2014, pp. 1572-3]

At a time when Haydn seems increasingly sidelined in the concert hall—at least in Britain, where not a single work of his was programmed in the 2014 BBC Proms—we should welcome any opportunity to hear one of his 15 operas. It’s just a shame, then, that despite ETO’s best (and arguably slightly excessive) efforts, his Il mondo della luna proved so forgettable on the first night of the company’s autumn season. There’s plenty of charming music, of course, the Act 2 finale in particular, but it does nothing to flesh out the entirely conventional characters of Carlo Goldoni’s libretto, two of which, including the castrato role of Ernesto, had in any case been quietly excised from ETO’s show (performed in James Conway’s witty translation). It’s also a work that betrays the circumstances of its commission in every bar: as a jolly entertainment composed to celebrate an Esterházy family wedding in 1777, it’s a comedy that’s all molar and no incisor.   

Perhaps acknowledging its deficiencies, the company had engaged Cal McCrystal (whose credits include being Physical Comedy Director for the National Theatre’s One Man, Two Guvnors) to squeeze the laughs out of the material—and then pile on plenty more on top. As such, with a cast giving its all, and attractive designs by takis—a Baroque garden that gave much scope for visual gags, and which was draped in white for the ‘moon’ in Act 3, plus lots of imaginative lunar costumes—there was no denying that there was a full evening’s worth of clowning around, even if, by the second half at least, I’d started to feel immune.

The whole thing would have been a lot less convincing, however, had it not been delivered by singers so clearly having a great deal of fun, right from an introduction—containing an account of the action, as well as gentle mocking of the cast—by the tenor Ronan Busfield. He also bore a great deal of the comic burden as the servant Cecco, which drew attention away from some eminently decent singing. As his boss, the quack astronomer Ecclitico, Christopher Turner sang and acted with relish. Andrew Slater brought easy volume and plenty of comic bluster to the duped Buonafede. Jane Harrington, as Clarice (the two daughters for Buonafede in the original were here amalgamated into one) didn’t quite have the agility for all of Haydn’s demands, but sang with spirit, as did Martha Jones as Lisetta, Buonafede’s predictably spunky maid.

Christopher Bucknall managed to highlight some of the score’s delights, which mainly featured the mellifluous wind soloists of the period-instrument Old Street Band; the string playing was occasionally a little raw, but buoyant and lively.