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.

3 comments:

  1. Probably wise re SJT! Yet some critics and audience members persist is callo him "magnificent" etc! Personally I've not enjoyed his singing for at least 5 years

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  2. Have said what I think about the voice in print enough times already. Was quite glad not to be obliged to repeat it on this occasion.

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  3. Ballo was a disgrace from top to bottom. Lazy singing from bored soloists and chorus, rotten concept and Direction, hideous sets and costumes recycled from the provinces of Germany with added dancing statue street performers! Royal Opera board members should be asking questions NOW.

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