This is a uniquely odd revival. In many decades of opera attendance at the ROH, I cannot recall any staged show – as opposed to concert presentation – being mounted for just three performances, all done and dusted in six days flat (the remaining two are on the 13th and 16th). Now, I know that much of this is to do with the fact that this outing was originally intended to star Renée Fleming (with Elisabeth Meister both covering her and singing some performances of her own) in a full-length run, and that it progressively unravelled once the American diva decided for whatever reason to withdraw (perhaps she thought that her straight theatre debut on Broadway back in April in Joe DiPietro’s creaky comedy “Living on Love” would still be running by this time. In the event, it never actually lasted out its opening month). So, with half the scheduled dates either tacked on to Figaro or parcelled out to the ballet, somebody in Bow St. had the strange idea of salvaging at least a Straussian stump by all-but repeating the cast of the opera’s last revival in June 2014, with the same Ariadne, Zerbinetta and Komponist, the same (very deluxe) trio of ersatz Rhine maidens, the same Music Master and Haushofmeister, and even two (of the four) commedia dell’arte men all reappearing. The two major changes are in the shape of a new – actually old, since he appeared in this show in 2008 – Bacchus, sung by Robert Dean Smith; and a new Harlequin, the excellent Nikolay Borchev, replacing the brash and charmless Markus Werba. O, and a new conductor, Lothar Koenigs, in loco Pappano.

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So what does it all add up to? Well, in the Prologue, I would say very little indeed. In truth, if I hadn’t been both duty- and honour-bound as a press guest to sit through it all, I would most certainly in propria persona as a paying punter have left immediately thereafter, and it was only that sense of obligation and the hope that Mattila would work her usual manic magic in the opera proper that got me to endure the interminable interval, quite the longest the house has outside of Wagner (and this in a scarcely two-hour work!). In particular, I found Ruxandra Donose’s Komponist to be wholly inadequate to the task in hand, vocally foggy at the bottom, stretched on the rack (and beyond) at the top, and with innumerable passages of poor intonation where she seemed to be channelling Pierrot Lunaire rather than anything written by Strauss. The latter stages of the duet with Zerbinetta were agonising; and the role’s greatest glory, the late outburst “Musik ist eine heilige Kunst”, was simply a toe-curling exercise in tip-and-run high notes and strain to the point of vocal near-collapse. I didn’t care for her last year – too little charisma, insufficient vocal distinction – but at least she sang it reasonably well (though not remotely in the same league as Susan Graham or Tatiana Troyanos, the two best I ever saw live). Now, alas, even that scant satisfaction has gone, and the role tonight was beyond her present powers to perform properly. Not even Thomas Allen’s quite wonderful Music Master could repair the damage, and since Christof Loy’s chilly, bloodless and feebly blocked staging throws everything back onto the poor singers – stranded in Herbert Murauer’s yawning, antiseptic acres of rigidly planar, neon-lit dead space – there is absolutely nowhere for them to hide and nothing for us to do but witness the sorry saga.

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As I observed last year, Loy has no more of an eye for a comic touch than he does for effective stage groupings, most of which take the form of everybody standing around or lolling against walls awkwardly gawping at whoever happens to be singing, allowing the drama to bleed to death wherever you look. As for bustle, chaos, clutter or merely the simple aggregation of pre-performance activity, Loy shows not an ounce of understanding, and I’ve never seen the Prologue fall flatter than this as a result. Throw in a Komponist without the musical wherewithal, and you have a write-off on your hands.

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Mercifully, things perked up considerably in the second half. I don’t like the staging of this any better – no cave or desert island, no proper scenic transformation at the end, no effectively realised clash of the competing musical cultures, not to mention Zerbinetta’s bizarre emotional and physical prostration at the end (er, Zerbinetta??!!) – but at least we had Mattila giving it all she’s got in the title role (in truth, vocally a bit less than she had to give last year: but that’s life in your late fifties, where the rate of decline starts to speed up). And much to my surprise, Jane Archibald, whose Zerbinetta last time I thought was “at best, mimsily correct…..with poorly-defined little semi-trills, a pair of high Es verging on inaudibility, the long high D on “hingegeben” stretched thin indeed, and about as much theatrical voltage as a half-dead torch battery” this time managed a decent stab at an authentic star-turn, with far better – and more audible – vocalism throughout, some actually flamboyant virtuosity here and there, and a more positive, assertive stage persona. Damrau or Dessay in the role she is not, much less Gruberovà (who was astonishing, both as a technician and a tart) or my personal all-time favourite, Gianna Rolandi, who packed it all in decades ago to become Mrs – now Lady – Andrew Davis. But this time Ms. Archibald did not disappoint, and gave a far better and more convincing account of the role and of herself in it.

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Karita Mattila just chucks herself body and soul at whatever she’s doing, so it will come as no surprise to learn that the dramatic temperature rose by about 40 degrees the minute she opened her mouth in the opera proper. True, there are some brutal gear changes now audible between the registers, and the breath-line has shrunk to the extent that neither “Ein Schönes war” or “Du wirst mich befreien” (in Es gibt ein Reich) are sung – as they really need to be (but oh-so-frequently aren’t) – as a single unbroken phrase. Indeed, she actually took a breath half-way through the former and re-sang the whole text over again squeezed into the remaining notes as a sort of bizarre bis. But Lord, what a resounding high B-flat on the impossible-to-approach “HERmes heissen sie ihn”, typical of the kind of risky, go-for-broke attitude that characterises all of the soprano’s stage performances I’ve ever witnessed. And just where I thought she was showing signs (or rather, sounds) of tiring, she rallied, and crowned the closing duet magnificently. The woman is a thing of wonder, to the extent that I even forgive her the overdone malarkey come the curtain call of constantly mouthing bug-eyed amazement at her reception, which I suppose she thinks looks appropriately modest, but actually registers as pure drag-act Blanche Dubois doing a “can all this be for poor little ME” routine instead.

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I liked Roberto Saccà as Bacchus last year, once past a very wobbly opening. In this revival, Robert Dean Smith – a lot more animated than usual on stage – is starting to sound thinner and more strained in alt. than the last time I heard him, and has a tendency to sound as if he were about to crack, though in fact he never actually does, and gets through it relatively unscathed, if without much by way of spin, ring, or tonal lustre. The trio of Naiad, Dryad and Echo are vocally beyond reproach, sung by Sofia Fomina, Karen Cargill and Kiandra Howarth respectively, individually excellent and with fabulous ensemble to boot in the densely-woven maze of interlocking counterpoint Strauss gives them to sing (surely Cargill should have been cast as the Komponist, and either of the others given a shot at as Zerbinetta). But I actively disliked the debuting Norbert Ernst’s Dancing Master, not well sung and acted in a manner of end-of-pier camp bordering on the offensive (notable how last year’s Ed Lyon was having none of it, quite rightly). Nor did I care for the returning Paul Schweinester’s Brighella, even scrawnier of voice than before and less able to reach the role’s high-lying flights of fancy. And nothing will ever reconcile me to Christoph Quest’s Haushofmeister (or Loy’s take thereon), too low-rent and chippy when the role cries out for orotund, icy hauteur.

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Other than Mattila and a much-improved Jane Archibald, the best thing in this revival-ette is Nikolay Borchev, who makes a far more pleasantly positive impression as Harlequin than Werba before him, sung with richer, more even tone and a less thuggish manner. The orchestra sounded as though some of Lothar Koenigs’ tempi were on the unexpected side (how much rehearsal did this have, I wonder?) exemplified alas by the unholy scramble which immediately preceded the Haushofmeister’s second entrance (the one bearing bad tidings). And though the solitary trumpet behaved himself, the quartet of cellos had a fairly torrid time in exposed high-lying passages. Elsewhere there were longueurs (both halves, at 43’ and 84’, a smidge too leisurely for their own good: brisk is best in all late Romantic music, as Solti, Böhm, Sawallisch, Kempe and Strauss himself all understood perfectly) though once or twice – Bacchus’ orchestral arrival, the latter stages of the Zerbinetta quintet – Koenigs achieved some authentically Straussian Schwung and generated a fair head of dramatic steam (more than Pappano managed to, in fact). But he allows the long closing duet to hang fire badly, which undermines the theatrical effectiveness of the whole, needing to provide a much firmer and propulsive hand than was evident here.

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Truthfully, you could give this middling shebang a miss, and not be missing much. But you might also be missing Mattila’s last local gasp as a star soprano before her inevitable full-time accession to “old bag repertory” – Kabanicha, Kostelnicka, the Pique Dame Countess – which she’s clearly going to dominate for many years to come (not least here in the upcoming Janáček cycle). For her alone, just to see the legend still at work – and, albeit past her vocal prime, still within audible hailing distance of it – it’s worth your while turning out to experience it at first-hand.

Stephen Jay-Taylor

(Photos : Catherine Ashmore / ROH)

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