Archives for posts with tag: Royal Opera

Like ‘a brightly coloured puppy chasing its tail’ is how the overture of this effervescent score has been described, bubbling along with youthful joy – and this can equally be applied to much of the rest of the piece. Written for Venice’s Teatro San Moisè in 1812, the overture has never been out of the repertoire and whilst complete performances of the complete opera are not uncommon, this was a welcome performance by the Jette Parker Young Artists in the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio, especially in light of it being the very first performance at the Royal Opera in over 200 years.

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Prohbarber0914Eatrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser’s stylised, luridly coloured, and effervescent production of Il barbiere di Siviglia is one of The Royal Opera’s more whimsical offerings. Its foundation is an atmosphere of vibrancy and mischief that is an apt companion to Rossini’s glittering score; its easy comedy and lightheartedness render it the ideal vehicle for star singers to impress. Despite being graced in past years by more obviously star-studded cast lists, the present offering, the production’s third revival, does not disappoint on this count. Indeed, this revival was granted new life by the fresh names in what turned out to be a remarkably good cast, the evening joyous and superbly sung.

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rohrigole0914EIt feels like opera lovers have been lamenting the absence of a true Verdi baritone for a couple of decades now. It’s not strictly true, of course. What they actually mean is that there are currently no house-filling star baritones who possess the authentic vocal heft, the characteristic ease in the break between the middle and upper registers, and the tenor-like squillo at the top of the voice, that are required to do full justice to the music that Verdi wrote for them. Given that mothballing most of his output until such time as this type of voice undergoes a renaissance is an option that is neither financially viable nor appealing from an audience’s perspective, a compromise is inevitable. Consequently we have seen these roles gradually appropriated by lyric baritones, who, in a different era, would never have dreamed of attempting them. In recent times, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Thomas Hampson and … er … um … Plácido Domingo have been among those prominent in keeping the flame burning. Read the rest of this entry »

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

La fille du régiment premiered in Paris at the Opera-Comique on 11 February 1840.  Donizetti had by this point attained preeminence in France, inaugurated largely by the hugely successful premiere of Lucia di Lammermoor in 1837.  The popularity of the Italian composer was such that Berlioz, in his predominantly dismissive review of the latter work, wrote: ‘One can no longer speak of the opera houses of Paris, but only of the opera houses of M. Donizetti.’  There is perhaps an element of irony in the ubiquity of Donizetti’s operas in the musical scene of the French capital, yet it is not terribly surprising that his buoyant melodies and virtuosic vocal writing became popular favourites with the public.  Nevertheless, the great difficulty of the principal roles coupled with the relative flimsiness of the plot renders La fille far from an easy opera to stage well; the opening night of this, The Royal Opera’s second revival of their current production, marked only the fifty-ninth performance of the work at Covent Garden since its premiere more than one-hundred and seventy-two years ago.

French director Laurent Pelly’s joyous staging of the work has been a favourite of London audiences since its premiere in 2007.  In many respects its brightly lit, effervescent sense of life remained as fresh and enjoyable as it was in both its previous incarnations.  Chantal Thomas’s set designs, centred on an Alpine topography of colourful maps underpinning the stage and rising as ersatz mountains in the background, continued to delight; the ensemble pieces, choreographed by Laura Scozzi, were as charming as ever.  If Christian Rath’s direction of the revival felt perhaps slightly less polished than its predecessors, it nonetheless succeeded in maintaining most of their winsome levity.  The most obvious worry for this revival was the noticeable lacuna left by the stars who originally made Pelly’s production such a hit; one had to wonder—could the staging still sparkle bereft of both Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez?

Ultimately, despite the preponderance of joys that remained, it did not—yet this was not entirely due to the expected cause.  Patrizia Ciofi, the Italian soprano who filled the rather large shoes left by Ms. Dessay, made just about as convincing a Marie as her predecessor.  If her characterisation veered rather close to that of her forerunner, and if she overdid some of the melodrama without imbuing it with quite the same level of charm, she still proved altogether likeable in her portrayal of the eponymous daughter of the regiment.  More than this, her singing was generally superb, flowing with ease through the coloratura obstacle course of Donizetti’s writing.  ‘Au bruit de la guerre’ soared spiritedly and freely, and her facetious take on Italian songs—‘Le jour naissait dans le bocage’—was as gleaming with comic undertones as it should have been.  Though Tonio’s role often attracts more attention for the fiendish difficulty of those glittering high Cs, it is Marie who holds the opera together, and it is no easy feat to sustain the role’s coloratura heights from start to finish.  Yet Ms. Ciofi did just this, her soprano impressing throughout with its brightness and ease.

Nor did Colin Lee disappoint as Tonio.  His tone is darker, less golden and flowing than Mr. Flórez’s, yet he succeeded in handling the extremely tough tessitura of the part with panache.  The touchstone of any assumption of Tonio is always those famous high Cs that are the hallmark of the resplendent ‘Ah!  Mes amis’.  Mr. Lee did them full justice, landing each note with assurance.  If, like Ms. Ciofi, he exhibited more of the strain inherent in the demanding nature of the role, he also impressed more often than not.  ‘Pour me rapprocher de Marie’ was delivered with delicacy, Mr. Lee’s timbre pure and graceful.  If his portrayal was marred by a tendency toward overdoing the naïve bumpkin side to Tonio in a way that could grate, his singing succeeded in being both heartfelt and lovely.

Returning to the role of the Marquise de Berkenfeld was mezzo-soprano Ann Murray.  She made the part just as much her own as she did on the last two outings, continually impressing for her comic sensibility as much as her superb vocal performance.  She simply commanded the stage with ‘Pour une femme de mon nom’, her lower register particularly plush and resonant.  The Marquise’s servant Hortensius was once again sung by the excellent Donald Maxwell, who drew out the full measure of comedy from the part; his scenes with Ms. Murray were a delight.  The Sulpice of Alan Opie was perhaps less memorable, yet Mr. Opie sang the part well enough, at his best in his scenes with Ms. Murray in the second act, as well as his entertaining trio with Ms. Ciofi and Mr. Lee, ‘Tous les trios réunis’.

The heavy-handedness of aspects of the non-naturalistic staging still gall—indeed, after repeated outings, they begin to gall all the more.  Mr. Pelly tackles the silliness of the drama with a production rich in farce, playing up the more slapstick side of the opera.  At its best, it dazzles with levity and wry comedy—the vaudeville-esque routine of the trio sung when Marie, Sulpice, and Tonio are all reunited in the second act, the filling of the ballet movement that opens the act with a perfectly synchronized dusting of the Chateau de Berkenfeld by a troupe of cross-dressing servants.  At other times, the pantomime becomes too artificial, too lacking in subtlety.  The appearance of a large playing card descending from above to announce ‘Le baromètre de l’amour’ when Tonio and Marie are united in love is simply distracting, facile and over the top; some of the theatrical hysterics—Marie’s pouting, Tonio’s constant puppy dog earnestness—become irritating after a while.  It managed to work well with the previous cast, but Ms. Ciofi and Mr. Lee, as good as their vocal performances were, simply could not capture the same level of on-stage allure.

However, the chief disappointment of the evening came from the pit.  Yves Abel conducted a decent account of the score, yet it never quite achieved the vitality and joie de vivre so essential to it.  The overture lacked vigour, and was marred by muddiness in the strings and missteps in the brass.  The woodwinds played well, the clarinet instilling the joy and playfulness that was initially lacking; however, though the singers were well supported in their arias, the direction lacked the élan and liveliness that made the previous iterations of Pelly’s production so enjoyable.  Without this in place, even the very good performances from the leads could not quite imbue the production with the charismatic pull it exerted in the past.

Finally, one has to wonder at the Royal Opera’s decision to cast former Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe in the non-singing role of the Duchesse de Crackentorp.  Ms. Widdecombe obviously tried her best, and I suppose she was entertaining enough despite not being particularly natural as a presence on stage.  Still, one has to give her credit for taking on the role and endowing it was as much humour as she could.

The Royal Opera Chorus were on sterling form; indeed, the set-pieces featuring the men of the twenty-first regiment  were amongst the most entertaining of the evening.  Pelly’s production is at its best during the cleverly choreographed ensemble scenes, showcasing the sense of jubilance at the heart of Donizetti’s opera.  It is this sense of buoyancy, augmented by strong showings from Mr. Lee, Ms. Ciofi, and Ms. Murray in particular, that kept the evening consistently appealing.  Just the same, it was hard not to compare it to the past two stagings, and to wish it had managed to capture a dash more of their lustre.

3.5 stars

John E. De Wald

Opera Britannia

(Photos by Bill Cooper)

The unveiling of the annual BBC Proms prospectus is always a cause for anticipation, even if, operatically, some of the key events have been open secrets for some time. Among the ‘known unknowns’ is Glyndebourne’s Le nozze di Figaro on 28th August. Conducted by Robin Ticciati, there’s a strong cast led by Vito Priante (Figaro), Lydia Teuscher (Susanna), Sally Matthews soprano (Countess Almaviva) and Audun Iversen (Almaviva). Dinner jackets and tiaras at the ready!

Sneaking a wooden horse past security at the Royal Albert Hall is the Royal Opera under Sir Antonio Pappano, bringing their new production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens for a concert performance on Sunday 22nd July. Starring Jonas Kaufmann (who made his sole Prom appearance so far as a soloist in Beethoven 9 in 2004) and Anna Caterina Antonacci, it’s a fair bet that this will be the first Proms to sell out once online booking opens on Saturday 12th May.

English National Opera makes a welcome appearance in the season with a concert performance of Peter Grimes on 24th August, starring Stuart Skelton in the title role. As it’s late in the season, might the David Alden production be heading for a September revival at the Coli? (ENO press launch eagerly anticipated next Tuesday). Ed Gardner conducts.

Opening weekend features Pelléas et Mélisande on Sunday 15th July, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and a cast featuring Phillip Addis (Pelléas), Karen Vourc’h (Mélisande), Laurent Naouri (Golaud) and Sir John Tomlinson (Arkel).

John Adams’ Nixon in China is performed on Wednesday 5th September, starring Kathleen Kim (Madame Mao), Alan Oke tenor (Chairman Mao), Gerald Finley bass-baritone (Chou En-Lai), Robert Orth baritone (President Nixon) and Jessica Rivera (Pat Nixon). The composer conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

G&S fans will welcome The Yeomen of the Guard on 19th August, the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Jane Glover.

For those inclined that way, My Fair Lady is on Saturday 14th July.

Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus is offered by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, strongly cast: John Mark Ainsley, Christopher Purves, Rosemary Joshua, Christine Rice and Tim Mead.

Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast is served up by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Tadaaki Otaka on 31st July, with Jonathan Lemalu the bass-baritone soloist.

Elgar’s The Apostles with the Hallé under Sir Mark Elder should be another season highlight, boasting a fantastic line-up of Rebecca Evans, Alice Coote, Paul Groves, Jacques Imbrailo, Iain Paterson and Clive Bayley. Will Sir Mark opt for the shofar?

Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder makes a welcome appearance on Sunday 12th August, featuring Angela Denoke, Simon O’Neill and Katarina Karnéus, conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek.

Joseph Calleja sings operatic arias and songs from musicals at the Last Night on 8th September.

Which of the Prom concerts tickle your musical tastebuds?