As a signifier, the term “semi-staging” in the context of what is institutionally a concert performance has become almost meaningless, used to describe virtually everything from line-up-and-sing behind music-stands in characterless evening dress affairs – which only just about get away with the designation because people make entrances and exits – to the kind of thing Glyndebourne mounts at the Proms, taken from a current show, fully costumed, with props and furniture as appropriate, all the stage action as originally directed on the South Downs, and as often as not attempting some kind of scenic adumbration into the bargain. Indeed, in the latter respect those present in the packed Royal Albert Hall tonight may have even got the better of the deal, spared as we were for the most part what is increasingly becoming the tediously unfunny, by now almost pathological obsession on the part of the director Richard Jones with wallpaper (and hideous wallpaper at that). The man who once gave us all scratch and sniff cards to accompany an opera might these days just as well issue the audience with a Sanderson’s sample-book and get us to vote for a lurid flock or anaglyptic of choice in time for Act III
As it happens, Paul Steinberg’s ghastly, heroically naff sets got off very lightly down at Glyndebourne, all the critical attention being instead diverted towards what rapidly became known as “Dumpygate”. Now, I’m not so stupid as to give that malarkey second-wind, even assuming that I wanted to (which I don’t). But what I will say is that this show is ugly beyond belief, and conceived in a nasty spirit of mockery against the work which alas extends as far as the poor singers themselves, especially the women. No-one in their right mind would costume poor Tara Erraught the way she is in this show – by Nicky Gillibrand: women beware women – either as a man or a woman. And to let the Marschallin, that touchstone of tasteful elegance and refined self-awareness, be dressed in Act III as some tarty provincial Nedda-as-Columbine in a frock of comical vileness is to betray the entire sincerity of the character’s actions and emotions at this crucial point in the drama. It takes a perverse kind of genius to take a woman as naturally striking and stage-worthy as Kate Royal – visually a natural Marschallin if ever there was one – and make her look as grotesque and ridiculous as she does here. It isn’t just Tara Erraught who’s been thrown to the wolves. The entire production team should hang their heads in corporate shame at this tacky, tasteless travesty. As the very eminent (female) author next to me said at the end: ”If he [Jones} dislikes the work so much, why does he even stage it? Do something else you do like and can respond to without treating it with contempt”. Exactly so.
So, at times like this, one ironically suddenly sees the merit in line-up-and-sing presentations, particularly if it means getting the cast off the raised platform erected at the back over the orchestral risers where, I have to say from the vantage point of the back row of Block M on the aisle adjoining L, most of them were sporadically inaudible, and all of whom would have benefitted enormously from being positioned down at the front, with the orchestra behind them. Banished thirty feet further back, albeit higher up, only the exemplary Faninal of Michael Kraus was fully, consistently audible throughout. Even as totally-at-ease and seasoned a stage animal as Franz Hawlata – the replacement, non-Glyndebourne Ochs – simply vanished beneath the acoustic horizon as he faithfully went through the elaborate motions, with far too much of the rapid dialogue between characters addressed sideways on rather than out to the audience, which in the vocally inhospitable RAH needs all the help it can get. There is also the utterly unforgivable fact that whilst the dismal dot matrix screen which permanently curves around the whole back of the platform was pressed into service depicting a simulacrum of the show’s sleazy wallpaper in each and every act, which God knows we didn’t need, the audience had to do without projected titles, which the self-same screen could presumably have accommodated, and they instead had to bury their heads all night long in the printed libretto and translation doled out on the doors for a fiver. So all Jones’s endless furniture rearranging, pullulating extras and signature dispraxic “dancing” went for very little since everybody had their head stuck in a booklet. This isn’t culture: it’s chaos
Given the criticism Ms. Erraught has encountered, I wanted to like her unreservedly. She’s certainly a lively presence on stage, and though to my mind completely miscast (and I bet deliberately so) as the titular Rose-Bearer, Octavian, she’s at least as good as the staging allows her to be (the post-presentation of the rose scene with Sophie is cringe-makingly dreadful, played as Carry On Strauss, all nose-in-bosom robotic drivel). But I have to say the voice strikes me on this showing as unexceptional, and with a rather alarming tendency to let the vibrations slow down on high sustained notes, sounding perilously close to a flap. I’d like to hear her in concert, shorn of all the schtick, where her natural femininity might well rebalance the impression. Kate Royal’s voice, by contrast, is a very notably classy business and very distinctive. But it’s small-scale – and therefore hopelessly ill-suited to the demands of the RAH – and has what sounds to me like patches of tremulousness around the passaggio where it doesn’t so much vibrate normally as bleat, losing both focus and volume in the process. As I’ve said, visually she’s perfect for the role and remarkably reminiscent of Felicity Lott to watch (though lucky Flott was never lumbered with this degree of visual opposition). But issues of simple audibility alone must surely limit the number of houses in which she can hope to succeed in this kind of orchestra-heavy repertory. She can get away with it at Glyndebourne itself, particularly with the kind of reduced band I noticed with surprise they were using tonight: but if the Met or Milan beckon, she ought to think twice.
Louise Alder, who I assume was the role’s official cover, replaced Teodora Gheorghiu – no relation, so I’m told – as Sophie (who, like Lars Woldt, who should have been singing Ochs, was listed as having withdrawn through illness). Another casualty of the costuming, especially in Act III where she appears as some bespectacled frump in a coconut brown dressing gown, Ms. Alder scored a notable personal success. I’ve heard better, and not just in the era of gaslight either (Lucy Crowe, for one). But for a debutante fresh from the chorus she gave a confident account both of the role and the notes, even if I long for the kind of long-breathed, effortlessly floating quality on the high Bs and B-flats at the start of Act II that Lucia Popp used to have at her fingertips. But then, she didn’t have to crank them out in the Albert Hall to an audience of 5,000. I’ll be very interested to watch how Ms. Alder’s career develops.
Hawlata, of course, is at the opposite end of his: and for someone who’s sung this killer of a role for as long as he has, his Ochs is in remarkably fresh estate, with surprising amounts of juice still in the tone, even if it doesn’t extend to much by way of the long held low E at the end of Act II (of which there has really only ever been one singer in the modern era who could actually sing it: Kurt Moll). But Hawlata remains a genial, mercifully underplayed Ochs (even when receiving his wound as Octavian suddenly stabs him in the backside with the silver rose, which I doubt Hofmannsthal would ever have either envisaged or condoned). And though he too fell foul of the prevailing acoustic vagaries and general mush, his acting carried the role even when his singing couldn’t (or couldn’t be heard to, more probably).
Amongst the smaller roles, Andrej Dunaev had a good stab at the Italian Tenor’s aria, with plenty of heft and accuracy of note values (never a forgone conclusion hereabouts in the score); and Helene Schneiderman was a luxurious and excellent piece of casting as Annina. Miranda Keys struggled vocally with the Duenna in Act II – as all Mariannes do: it’s written to high C for a brief character role, for God’s sake! – but was an imperious presence even so, strongly reminiscent of Pam Ferris’s hysterical turn as the Irish mafiosa in Danny DeVito’s oddly overlooked jet-black comedy Death to Smoochy. Can La Jones actually have seen it, I wonder? Scott Conner made much of what pitiably little of his role as the Police Commissar in Act III remained after all the wretched cuts Robin Ticciati made throughout the score.
This doesn’t dispose me well towards him to start with, and I can’t say his conducting of what he did bother to perform did much for me. The prelude – punctuated where I was sitting by a bevvy of unapologetic and bolshy latecomers, one of whom proceeded to push into his seat in front of me, take out his mobile phone and start texting until a very heavy hand landed on his shoulder – was no more than stodgily dutiful, quite without erotic energy or much by way of climax: nowhere were memories of Carlos Kleiber, Solti, Haitink, Andrew Davis and James Levine even evoked, much less eclipsed. In contrast, his no-nonsense Act III trio – “Hab’s mir gelobt” would have got my vote if it weren’t for a sudden, unwritten accelerando which both mistimed and short-changed the climax completely. And if you can’t get the Act III trio in Der Rosenkavalier right, what business have you conducting the score at all? The whole thing sounded to me like a first-cousin of his ROH Eugene Onegin: unidiomatic to a degree, and dispiritingly lacklustre. It’s a thousand pities Jurowski didn’t hang on long enough at Glyndebourne to do this, since his Strauss has unmistakable authenticity (and he wouldn’t have countenanced the cuts, either).
The LPO, understaffed as I’ve observed, made a persuasive sound, though they were thoroughly – and bizarrely – upstaged in Act III by the offstage band, which sounded twice the size and had, despite the measurable sense of great distance, much the richer and more immediate sonority (I except the main orchestra’s Double Bassoonist, who didn’t so much have a field day as perform an entire three-hour concerto). But it didn’t really cohere for me as a performance of Strauss’ most irresistible opera, either musically – too many small voices, too much undistinguished conducting – or theatrically – too many visual horrors to endure – so that the applause at the end felt to me more like sesquicentennial duty than serious delight. Others, doubtless, will tell a different tale. But that’s theirs to tell, not mine. I care about this opera. Sitting through a performance where it becomes evident that some involved in it actually don’t is not an experience I much savour. Hence
(Photos from the Glyndebourne staged production : Bill Cooper)