The most affecting moment in this, the 24th revival of John Copley’s 1974 staging, occurred after the performance had finished, during the curtain-calls, at the end of which Copley himself was ushered onto the stage, first for a solo bow, and then – with the curtains raised again – presented with an enormous decorated cake in celebration of his fifty years’ activity as a producer at Covent Garden. Tony Hall made an enthusiastic speech in appreciation of Copley’s achievements in the House, closely observed by a silent-but-present Antonio Pappano; and then the director himself rather reluctantly took the microphone to express both his gratitude and astonishment at this unexpected homage, in the process managing to tell a characteristically juicy story about a previous onstage birthday celebration of his at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, when the company had decked Turandot’s throne with the Union Jack and hired a stripper (male, naturally) to show him the full extent of the company’s appreciation. You can’t quite see this happening with Peter Konwitschny or Christof Loy in forty years’ time, can you?

Indeed, other than mouthing platitudes, one might well enquire of the ROH’s management why they don’t instead employ the man they have otherwise ignored since 1987 (the year of his admittedly unsuccessful Norma, the last time the opera was seen in the house to date) and give him a new production to mount. If not, they could do all of us with a memory- and attention-span longer than five minutes – a great favour and revive his incomparably fine Così fan tutte rather than rehash the visually sterile, hair-shirt modish rubbish that’s been dished up in this opera’s name for the last fifteen years; or his gorgeous Faust, a far better staging (and performance text, too) than the McVicar mish-mash we’re currently stuck with. But just as the dread Gelb pays onstage homage at the Met to Zeffirelli (during, co-incidentally, his Bohème) who, bless him, had the wit to enquire why then, if his shows were so much loved, the management was doing nothing but progressively strip them out of the repertory, so we might well ask why has such a clearly well-liked and respected practitioner been ignored for 25 years?

There’s another moving spirit behind this long-lived show who also needs a mention, and some kind of recognition for her contribution: the late, great Julia Trevelyan Oman, who also gave the house her exemplary designs for Eugene Onegin and Die Fledermaus, both, alas, long-since gone (but, in the Tchaikovsky’s case, effortlessly superior to either of its grisly replacements). Indeed, watching her characteristically detailed and four-square, architecturally accurate, split-level sets is fast becoming the operatic equivalent of encountering an extinct species. When contemplating the ROH’s recent Manon, say, the biggest single visual innovation of which was to install ramps everywhere – making it the world’s first wheelchair-accessible Massenet staging – and reset the period so that the Cours-la-Reine looks like a provincial revival of Hello Dolly!: or the Don Carlo with its mobile funerary monuments, cardboard trees, and walls and benches of red Lego; to say nothing of more upfront deconstructionist trash such as Loy’s Tristan or the recent Rusalka, perversely repulsive and hideously ugly the pair of them, you’re left with the sinking feeling that there is genuinely now no-one who either knows, or even cares. Stage design in general and that of opera in particular seems to me at such a low ebb today, obsessed with tat and trivia, neon and novelty, video and viscera, that the largely illusionist representational theatre on which the whole visual basis of C19th opera rests gets nary a look-in, dismissed out-of-hand by the usual spouting suspects as “irrelevant” (the mantra for the congenitally ignorant-but-bullish).

So: if you want to see what a carefully lit, subtly evocative, architecturally and temporally accurate account of Puccini’s opera looks like, better hurry along to the ROH before someone decides it’s old-hat and commissions something set in a medical research laboratory in outer space. You’d be doubly well advised to do so, in fact, because the staging and the sets are considerably more persuasive in promulgating Puccini’s shameless, tear-jerking cause than any of the actual performances by the singers. Or the conductor. Dear me, yes: the conductor. I remember when Carlos Kleiber lead the work at the ROH in 1979 to universal adulation: I hated it, more like a vivisection than a performance, the work unpicked and left that way, without any sense of organic growth or impulse, just a series of localised musical inspections leaving the Rodolfo and Mimi (Aragall and Cotrubas) pretty much hung out to dry. Semyon Bychkov does not, mercifully, fall into this trap: no, he falls straight into the other one: hyper-inflation of the Karajan type. No aria can go too slowly, or start so slowly that it still can’t get a whole lot slower in the unfolding. No detail can be left unexamined and then not highlighted in the orchestra – I never knew that Act II was in fact a harp concerto – nor can any climax be too loud or agonisingly prolonged in the coming. This bloated, overblown style of conducting is at the furthermost remove from what Puccini – as evidenced by Toscanini’s recordings (he premiered the work in 1896) – had in mind: quicksilver, thrusting, conversational, very sparingly overtly emotional throughout, and keeping your powder dry for the no more than two or three passages where it really needs to explode. Well as the orchestra played tonight – a miserable trumpet lapse in the last three bars apart – this isn’t Puccini: it’s what Puccini has been turned into by certain conductors whose natural mode of expression is one of permanent exaggeration and endlessly intrusive micro-management. Of a naturally unfolding, organic sense of the music-drama, not a trace.

So if this revival could well have dispensed with anybody’s services, it was Bychkov’s: instead of which he busied himself with dispensing with his sopranos. Exit Anja Harteros. Exit Celine Byrne. Enter Carmen Giannattasio. I’ve heard her live before, twice in concert – Parisina and Ermione in 2008 and 2009 respectively, in the RFH – and once on stage – Vitellia in Clemenza at Aix last year – and have always thought reasonably highly of her. But the Mozart in 2011 was quite a squally business at times – though easily excusable given the nature of the role, opera’s greatest cow – and I had been wondering how a women whose home repertory is quite specifically Caballé’s bel canto (Giannattasio’s new Il pirata is released this week) would fare in the rather different world of verismo, where no vocal pyrotechnics are either required or even allowed. Of course, a genuine pianissimo is the one useful attribute hereabouts, as would be length of phrase (as Caballé proved on the magnificent Solti /RCA recording).  Alas then, on this showing Giannattasio isn’t in command of either. The sound is surprisingly edgy, and very short-winded, the phrasing entirely at the mercy of the need to break lines up into manageable little chunks. The Act I aria was a bumpy, ill-drawn business, all bulges of screamy tone in alt. and recourses to a rather mewling, vaguely-defined middle elsewhere, for all that she looked the diminutive, frail consumptive to the life (the strapping and remarkably tall Harteros would have had her work cut out for her). She did improve somewhat as the evening progressed; D’onde lieta uscì in Act III – you know, the aria everybody thinks is called Addio senza rancor – had the emotional trajectory born of a securely-drawn line, but still no intrinsic beauty of tone or any noticeable individuality of phrase or colouring. And in Act IV she died as she had lived, hard-toned and a bar at a time.

This is a shame. But it does clear the way for a half-decent Rodolfo to walk off with the work. Certainly, come the curtain calls, that was the audience’s verdict. But it isn’t mine, I’m afraid, because for entirely different reasons I no more liked Joseph Calleja’s poet than I did Giannattasio’s seamstress. I’ve no argument for the most part with either his artistry – considerable – or his commitment – ditto – or with the way in which he uses his voice, which is pretty much exemplary (though the way he launches O soave fanciulla at maximum can belto is hardly his finest hour). It’s simply the voice itself, which lands upon my ears in such a throttled orgy of goat-bleat that it’s all I can do not to head for the exits straight away. These things are exceptionally personal, I know: most hear it and don’t mind; some hear it and actually like it (!!!!); and some – of whom there were alas plenty on hand tonight – are so cretinously stupid (clapping early in Act III despite a deliberately delayed curtain-fall and actually starting to clap BEFORE Mimi had even died in IV, half-witted morons) that they don’t hear it at all. But for me, it’s practically all I do hear, so I’ll just stick to the fact that the oppure high C in Che gelida manina was a thinnish, strained affair, the equally oppure offstage one at the end of the act rather better, and that when, as artistry dictates, he attempts to sing softly, all that’s audible is a tremulous little shudder rather like a pigeon cooing. The problem is, I heard Domingo, Carreras and Pavarotti all sing in this staging in their primes, and it doesn’t help (the young Carreras was absolutely glorious, never really equalled since in my experience). But Joseph Calleja, fine as he in some ways is, simply for me isn’t in the same league.

I applied my habitual blind-tasting test to the Marcello, the house-debuting Fabio Capitanucci: shut your eyes and work out how old the singer is from the sound alone, and then see if it matches the reality. To my surprise, the bearer of such a well-worn, slightly effortful in alt. woolly baritone turned out not to be about 55 but in his mid-thirties, which is hardly encouraging. Still, he was as a piece of vocal rock compared to the incomprehensibly-cast Thomas Oliemans, more-or-less voiceless as Schaunard. And much as I would like to report positively on Matthew Rose as Colline – subbing for an absent Yuri Vorobiev, who’ll instead turn up later in the run – I can’t say his notably un-Italianate tone, lean and light, brought much to Vecchia zimarra in Act IV, though his intrinsically lugubrious stage persona worked well for the character (and England’s cricket team should know where to turn next for a star batsman, six out of six lumps of baguette duly batted cleanly out of bounds). Nuccia Focile gives us the usual shrill tart as Musetta, still capable of some vocal delicacy when not under pressure to project (alas, then, not all that often), but gratingly hard-edged and short-breathed in Quando m’en vo’ (taken, like all the score’s major arias and set-pieces, at an ever-slowing snail’s pace that would have taxed the breath control of even Caballé and Cappuccilli, let alone this lot).

The children’s chorus – new to the house this season and grandly entitled the ROH Youth Opera Company, 51-strong, and aged between 9-13 – are certainly an ebulliently positive presence: but they, like the soloists, found that keeping in time with an ever-dragging beat was difficult, and  got out of tempo in Act II (not disastrously, but enough to notice). In fact, if there’s one thing that characterises this revival, it’s the fractional mis-timing of almost everything, whether musical or dramatic. Everybody’s timing seems to be just ever-so-slightly off. The key wasn’t found on cue, the wrong candle went out, Alcindoro’s acquisition of Musetta’s dog was too late for the curtain, and the overlong pregnant pauses caused at least one twerp to start clapping prematurely. Nothing quite “gels”. I’m sure this is down to Bychkov rather than any inherent problems with an otherwise foolproof production and some very stage-savvy performers, both of which seem unsettled by the very grand presence in the pit. Luckily for the on/off/on lurve couple in June’s revival, the altogether more saisonné and get-on-with-it Benini will be on hand. Pity he wasn’t tonight.

**

Stephen Jay-Taylor

Opera Britannia

Photographs © Bill Cooper

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