23 May 2016

Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Saturday May 21 2016

Conductor: Daniele Gatti. Production: Pierre Audi. Sets and costumes: Christof Hetzer. Lighting: Jean Kalman. Video: Anna Bertsch. Tristan: Torsten Kerl. Isolde: Rachel Nicholls. Brangäne: Michelle Breedt. King Marke: Steven Humes. Kurwenal: Brett Polegato. Melot: Andrew Rees. Shepherd, young sailor: Marc Larcher. Steersman: Francis Dudziak. Orchestre National de France. Chorus of Radio France.

The first thing I wanted to say here, without introduction, is that Tortsen Kerl, as Tristan, was magnificent. In his act three delirium he was phenomenal, acting up a storm in a way I had no idea he had in him. It was a rare privilege to be there. The TCE's reasonable dimensions allowed him to sing and shape the part in a way few tenors can - often they recite or bark or almost shout it out in desperation (sometimes quite effectively, I must admit) - and in a way Kerl himself was unable to bring off as Siegfried in 2011, defeated, as so many are, by the Bastille's unreasonable vastness. Apparently, earlier in the run he had people worried he might be falling ill, but there was no sign of that on Saturday night - as far as I know the slight but not unpleasant nasal timbre and hint of "congestion" are part of his usual package; and he has more body and grit to his voice than some I've heard. No, this was a truly exceptional experience.

But being at the TCE, not the Bastille, of course made a difference for everybody: singers, orchestra and audience, reminding us that “even” Wagner suffers from being performed in a jumbo-sized house. At the TCE, finesse is still possible and the impact of a large-scale work (even if the TCE’s pit limits the size of the orchestra) is intact.

People bought their tickets expecting Emily Magee as Isolde. She dropped out mid-rehearsal and was replaced by a young soprano as yet nearly unknown in France, so of course ticket-holders feared disappointment... They needn’t have. Rachel Nicholls is no doubt a very different Isolde from Emily Magee, but a very good one even so: young, energetic and determined, vocally brighter than usual at the top: her critics find her shrill and perhaps she does lack a degree of “rapturous” warmth. But she has all the notes and, like Kerl, can sing the part, not scream it.

For some people, the star of the show was actually Brett Polegato’s vigorous, generous Kurwenal. Steven Humes, as a youngish King Marke, was vocally bright, clear and powerful but in this role we could perhaps have done with more depth and warmth. Michelle Breedt was a highly committed Brangäne, warmer and rounder in timbre than Isolde, more “typically” Wagnerian might, I suppose, sum it up. In fact one of the nice things about this Tristan was that everyone was committed and generous – in a way they might also be at the Bastille, only there, from the far-off back rows of the upper reaches (I now pay a fortune for seats in the parterre, near the stage), it’s to little avail. In a smaller house their efforts pay off.

Conductor Daniele Gatti avoided wallowing and went for a fairly dry, compact sound, relatively transparent, bringing out details right down to the beautifully crafted harp arpeggio before the final long, swelling chord (the swelling upset some people). There was some memorable playing from the woodwinds (as usual; the cor anglais even came out on stage for a bow at the end) and lower strings (less usual), as well as some chaotic playing from the “hunting” horns – chaotic brass being a signature of the Orchestre National.

During act one, the production, a new one, came across as a visually seductive, timeless “modern classic”. I wasn’t alone in thinking of both Wieland Wagner and Robert Wilson: it could have been staged any time in the last 40 years. It started with a giant black square against a backlit (Wilson-style) backdrop. When the square had gone (it would be back for the other acts), the set was made up of four high-backed (nearly as high as the proscenium arch) steel trucks, gliding around, apparently unaided, to form different spaces evoking the ship’s rusty innards, sometimes plain black, sometimes with a beautiful, dimly glowing patina of blue, black and bronze. The potions were symbolised by crystals; taking them was symbolised by joining foreheads. The singers wore late 20th century “opera costumes” – needlessly complicated grey-blue draperies for the women, flowing blue-grey greatcoats, and cargo pants for the men (some of them with pony-tails ), with hints of Rick Owens. Extras were silhouetted against the backdrop like Karagöz characters. The lighting was spectacularly good, with principals brightly lit from the sides in front of dimmer backgrounds. So: not outright contemporary, but modern classic, very photogenic and and very promising.

But the following acts were less successful. The pallid, leafless act two forest was sparse: more like the rib-cage of a whale, or the ribs of a wave-worn shipwreck curving up from the ground. A facetted black menhir loomed up at the back, later shedding its black “skin” to reveal a structure of slender steel rods – like the kind of “modern” sculpture you might find at the HQ of a bank. The meaning of this was unclear, unless it was to do with Tristan and Isolde being uncovered. The costumes were now less “opera standard” and more everyday, closer to the kind of outdoor clothes people wear on Europe’s wet and windy Celtic fringes. The lovers stayed noticeably apart, singing to the far corners of the auditorium, but these days that’s standard too. Never once did Tristan look happy.

In act three, the castle was a black box, centre stage, with a glossy black interior and a single light shining out into the audience – Isolde’s light, which would go out, of course, once she arrived. The stage was strewn with black rocks, and on the right was a Flintstone-style structure with four long, knobbly legs, holding up a mummy on a bier. The costumes, in this post-apocalyptic setting, were sheer grunge, including plastic macs, and Isolde’s long hair had been cropped boyishly short.

Kerl was, as I said, magnificent in his delirium and Polegato was as vigorous as before, so there was no problem with the acting. And once Kurwenal had killed even Brangäne, the stage was left near-empty apart from the numerous dead: the black box became just a frame, and Isolde sang her Liebestod silhouetted, a black figure in a black cassock, against the light, quite effectively. But overall, though there were clearly symbols in this staging, it was hard to see what they meant (thinking of which, the videos were hard to see as well: I think I missed them, or mistook them for lighting glitches). There’s already a lot of death in Tristan. Did the successive costume changes, from “opera-classic” to modern grunge, add something about the death of mythical ideals? I don’t know and don’t seem to be alone in not knowing. Without Jean Kalman’s superb lighting, I’m not sure what would actually be left of this production.

But musically it was an outstanding evening. My neighbour was close to tears. In the circumstances I only wish – sincerely – that I liked Wagner better and could have shared fully in the excitement.

Maestro Wenarto shows once more how it should be done.

16 May 2016

Mozart - Mitridate, re di Ponto

Palais de la Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday May 15 2016

Conductor: Christophe Rousset. Production and costumes: Jean-Philippe Clarac and Olivier Deloeuil - Le Lab. Sets and lighting: Rick Martin. Video: Jean-Baptiste Beïs. Mitridate: Michael Spyres. Aspasia: Lenneke Ruiten. Sifare: Myrtò Papatanasiu. Farnace: David Hansen. Ismene: Simona Šaturová. Marzio: Sergey Romanovsky. Arbate: Yves Saelens. Orchestra of La Monnaie.

Waffle-warning: this account is going to start with a fair amount of waffle not all directly related to yesterday's performance of Mitridate. Feel free to skip the digression. To help, I will mark the start of the write-up proper clearly in CAPITALS. But first, the waffle...

These must be nail-racking, nerve-biting times for the people in charge of La Monnaie. The house was already supposed to be hard up, as they all are these days. Then it announced that its home, the Théâtre Royal, seriously needed renovating, so last season's performances took place in various other venues around Brussels, as mentioned in my write-ups e.g. of Adès's Powder her Face.

Work started late and will go on longer than expected (fancy that!), so the company looked around for alternatives and finally decided it would recycle a big top used for opera in Liège and put up for sale in 2014 for half a million euros. This was, it transpired, too clapped-out to be reused. The upshot is that La Monnaie has, in the end, as I said in my April account of Béatrice et B., erected a brand-new plastic hangar on industrial waste ground a fair distance, across uneven terrain, from any main road. A double-decker London bus has been parked on the bare earth, halfway there, to sell champagne to those desperate for a drink on the way. Some shuttle buses and golf carts and extra staff have been laid on for those, such as old and infirm patrons, who find the trek too much. And anyone in a wheelchair has to take the long way round (reminding me of a sign that used to be posted at a back door to the Gare de l'Est in Paris, saying that the entrance for people with restricted mobility was 500 metres to the left).

To (big) top it all (OK, that pun is cringe-making; but I could also have made a joke out of waffle-warning, in the Belgian context, but didn't...) to top it all, as I was saying, management found they could not put on their existing, Carsen production of Mitridate there, so they literally put the show out to tender with a call for proposals. I believe they got more than 100, and what we saw yesterday was the winning bid, by Jean-Philippe Clarac and Olivier Deloeuil from an outfit in Bordeaux called "Le Lab".

It turns out, as I also said in April, that La Monnaie's shiny new tent is not only stiflingly hot when the sun's out, but also right on the flight path for planes landing at Zaventem (I was told, and it may be true, that pilots follow the nearby canal). It is anything but soundproof. During B & B, in addition to planes (at that particular time mercifully few, as the airport was only just cautiously re-opening after the March terrorist attack) and despite the very audible rumble and rush of the ineffectual ventilators, I heard birds chirping on the roof, let alone kids playing outside and police cars screaming by. In other words, the new venue is, if truth be told, unfit for purpose and a trial to all: above all, I should think, to the conductor, singers and orchestra, but also to the audience. Even with seats closer to the stage (my present ones are too far away to see who's singing), I'm not looking forward to next season there. And I'm sorry to say that even today I had a message from an acquaintance saying "The hangar was awful. We're not returning until they do the old theatre up." Bad news for a struggling house.


Mitridate is a work that needs help, not hindrances. It is about as undramatic as they come, so it was perhaps as well that the new production kept people amused (though I did wonder "aloud" as it were, on Facebook this morning, whether opera seria based on Racine ought actually to amuse us). The concept was not, as La Libre Belgique complained at some length ("un sentiment de déjà-vu et d’ennui..."), novel, but unlike La Libre Belgique most people seemed ready to indulge it in return for being kept awake, in the airless heat of the tent, by its perpetual movement and changes of focus from live action to video.

The work was set in modern Europe and indeed contemporary Brussels: the Roman Union v. the Pontus Kingdom. The hall was decked with the EU member states' flags, interspersed with TV screens frequently flashing "breaking news", CNN- or BBC-style, complete with Angela Merkel, David Cameron and François Hollande, and even before we were in our seats, outside in the foyer, a makeshift shrine to the supposedly-late Mitridate had sprung up, a bank of flowers, candles, teddy-bears, flags and hand-written messages like those that appeared after the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels.

On stage was a functional summit conference-room with a large oval table surrounded by chairs. At times, screens and other panels were wheeled in to create a more intimate space of easy-chairs and coffee tables; barriers kept jostling journalists at bay; a lectern appeared for speech-making. Costumes were resolutely contemporary: politicians' suits for the men, suits and stilettos for the women, smartphones and video-screens were much stared-at, and at one point Marzio lounged against a wall eating a cornet of chips. Mitridate, looking back to the legend, at one stage rolled up his sleeves to inject himself, at another took pills, and his fatal gesture, at the end, was to unplug a drip from his arm.

By now far from innovative, but entertaining enough. It might prove telegenic.

I was, as I said, a long way from the stage. I wished I were nearer, as I'm almost certain this was an all-round excellent cast, and if I'd been closer the roar of landing jets overhead would have been less worrisome. The women's singing was impeccably musical and manicured, sweet-toned and modest: top notes were not played to the gallery but almost systematically (with some very impressive exceptions) kept short and vibrato-free. It was peculiarly consistent, as if all three had been to the same school, under the same teacher - there was relatively little contrast between them. For a time I felt frustrated at the primness of it, wishing for more dramatic thrills. But then it struck me that the fault, if such it could be called in the circumstances, was perhaps more young Mozart's than theirs: his score is stronger on introversion (the sad bits, you might say) than drama. And if I'd been nearer the stage, I might have experienced more oomph.

David Hansen was more obviously dramatic, with a more striking, resounding counter-tenor voice than I expected (with my usual prejudices against counter-tenors in opera). A nice surprise. Michael Spyres has had good reviews (e.g. "... in this very difficult role that requires all the skills from rapid notes to jumps and a variety of affections he is almost exceptional"*), so perhaps yesterday was an off-day, understandable in a long run of such an impossible role: he sounded perilously stretched at some points, though at others his warm, grainy timbre, more powerfully projected than his colleagues', was thrilling.

In 2007 I wrote "Christophe Rousset and his Talens Lyriques are a lot fleeter of foot than Mark Wigglesworth and the Monnaie band, even though the latter were being as HIP as they could: no vibrato for the strings and, just to make things harder, no valves on the horns." Well, this time Rousset was in the pit, so the band was as fleet-footed and bouncy as you could wish for. It was a good thing, I thought, it was Rousset and not Christie, as I'm almost certain the latter would have downed his baton (if he used one) and stomped off as the umpteenth plane roared overhead. Rousset had at times to gesticulate almost wildly to help his soloists keep time over the din.

But to my relief, as any interruptions would have made Mitridate in the hot tent even longer, he soldiered on and we ended right on time.

*Il giardino di Armida.

Maestro Wenarto sings even earlier Mozart.

5 May 2016

Verdi - Rigoletto

ONP Bastille, Monday May 2 2016

Conductor: Nicola Luisotti. Production: Claus Guth. Sets and costumes: Christian Schmidt. Lighting: Olaf Winter. Il Duca di Mantova: Michael Fabiano. Rigoletto: Quinn Kelsey. Gilda: Olga Peretyatko. Sparafucile: Rafal Siwek. Maddalena: Vesselina Kasarova. Giovanna: Isabelle Druet. Il Conte di Monterone: Mikhail Kolelishvili. Marullo: Michal Partyka. Matteo Borsa: Christophe Berry. Il Conte di Ceprano: Tiago Matos. La Contessa: Andreea Soare. Paggio della Duchessa: Adriana Gonzalez. Usciere di corte: Florent Mbia. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

It's always frustrating when, as sometimes happens, the efforts of an excellent cast are undermined by the distancing effects of an unsuccessful production. So it was this week at the Bastille, with this Rigoletto - or so it seemed to me, at any rate. As also quite often happens, the initial idea was reasonable enough but unconvincingly carried through.

As the opera began, an old tramp in a long coat, with remnants of white makeup on his face, knelt and opened a carton. He pulled out, first, a (monochrome) Harlequin's outfit, then a blood-stained white dress. Carrying his memories round in a box, we easily understood; and the production would be a flashback, in basically a single set: the box,blown up to Bastille proportions.

But from then on, it was as if the director and his assistants couldn't make their minds up, trying out one cliché ("poncif" was the word my French neighbour used) of modern staging after another to no satisfactory overall effect. The opening scene was in renaissance costume until Monterone burst in in plain, dark, modern clothes. Perhaps it had been a fancy dress ball after all: we never saw period costumes again. When they finally met, Gilda, in a demure white dress, and the duke, in a stiff, nerdy hairpiece and nerdy specs, together looked like Janet and Brad in Rocky Horror. The old tramp we had seen was not, it turned out, Rigoletto, but his double. There would be doubles (or more) throughout the show. Sparafucile and Rigoletto were even dressed the same and mirrored each other's gestures as they struck their deal, and during "Caro nome" we had three ages of Gilda, in identical white dresses, on points and the duke's nerdy double, also a dancer, attending her on her pedestal.

The duke and Gilda
There were video projections as well, admittedly not all as corny as the one of Gilda running towards us, in slow motion, through a field of wild flowers (or later, running away again).

None of all this business seemed urgently necessary and the effect was fragmented, not coherent. Least understandable of all, to me (perhaps I was tired and not in a mood for working things out) and unkindest to the tenor was to have him, after a good snort of coke, sing "La donna e mobile" in front of a line-up of showgirls in white feathers, wriggling their bottoms at him and provoking laughter from the audience. I really don't know why Maddalena was leading this revue at Sparafucile's house, in black patent, thigh-high boots and spangled tails - though it must be said Vesselina Kazarova wore the outfit with panache.

The trouble with this sort of production is that, by distancing you from the characters and preventing you from engaging with them, it limits the singers' powers to stir up emotion. This is, as I said, frustrating when you have such a good cast up there on stage, battling away at it.

Least hindered was perhaps Quinn Kelsey, who managed to project a moving portrayal of a tragically broken man. Vocally he was an unusual, un-Italian Rigoletto, lighter and grainier in tone than you expect, sounding somehow higher than the notes he was actually singing, perhaps a touch colourless, but powerful neverless. It was a pity that the effect of his final business, packing the dress into the carton to "boucler la boucle" of the flashback production, was underwhelming.

I was very glad to have at last a chance to see and hear Michael Fabiano. His voice is darker than I expected, especially at the top, with a striking variety of colour and timbre and wide dynamic range. His singing was generous - maybe even more generous than need be: with such reserves he could afford to take things easier - and, so I thought, risk-taking and pugnacious, as if determined to break out of the constraints of the production and project real personality from behind those nerdy specs. This pluckiness was undeniably engaging, when these days so much singing is cautious and sparing.

Olga Peretyatko, though by no means old, is a bit too grown-up to skip across the stage like a kid to greet her father. Vocally, she is, as my neighbour put it, not a fragile Gilda, and he meant it as a compliment. I enjoyed what sounded to me like old-fashioned diva singing, with some truly gorgeous sounds and impressive technique - I don't think I just imagined, at one point, two successive, flawless messa di voce.

The rest of the cast was more or less perfect, with Vesselina Kasarova not only looking great in her boots and tails but in much better vocal shape than I had, I must admit, feared. And the orchestra, under Nicola Luisotti, was for once a genuine protagonist, not just an accompaniment.

The production is, for now, available on line and will apparently come out on DVD, so anyone interested will have a chance to see if my impressions make sense. To me, putting this cast in this production was a lost opportunity. I'm told Guth has done better work. To me, Carsen's "circus" staging would, if he could have been persuaded to come and revive it himself, probably have been a better bet.

5 Apr 2016

Berlioz - Béatrice et Bénédict

Palais de la Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday April 3 2016

Conductor: Samuel Jean. Production: Richard Brunel. Sets: Anouk Dell'Aiera. Costumes: Claire Risterucci. Lighting: Laurent Castaingt. Don Pedro: Frédéric Caton. Claudio: Etienne Dupuis. Bénédict: Julien Dran. Don Juan: Sébastien Dutrieux. Léonato: Pierre Barrat. Héro: Sophie Karthäuser. Béatrice: Michèle Losier. Samarone: Lionel Lhote. Ursule: Eve-Maud Hubeaux. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie.

I like directors who set you thinking, which is why Tcherniakov and Warlikowski are favourites. I'm less keen when a director decides to "improve" a work by rewriting and reordering it to suit his own ideas.

Richard Brunel seems to have found Béatrice et Bénédict a bit too frothy and fun, and decided it should be grimmer and that Samarone should play a bigger, blacker role. It had never occurred to me before, though it now seems obvious, that this is easy to do when a work has spoken dialogues. You can change the plot without composing new music - you just move it around, as on Sunday. As I didn't know the piece, with a defter touch on Brunel's part I might not have noticed. But I sensed something was wrong as this "new version" wavered awkwardly from light-hearted to heavy-handed, and it was clear once Héro was denounced as a two-timer by Samarone, called a slut and a whore and spat on by her lover, and in the end, when it was all cleared up, still refused to marry him, that the reworking was severe.

Visually, the show was less startling. There was a single, multi-purpose set and a single set of multi-purpose props. At the start we were perhaps in church or in a village square. There was a spiral staircase on the left up to a pulpit that later
doubled as a balcony. At the rear was a war-memorial wall of dead soldiers's photos that the living soldiers burst through in modern camouflage with guns (with Brussels still in shock after suicide bombings in March, we had been warned about this in advance by management). Wardrobes that at first were linen cupboards became soldiers' lockers, and were later used for hiding in and eavesdropping from before lying down and turning into a banqueting table. Washtubs became bathtubs as the soldiers stripped to their boxers to soap down. ("This being La Monnaie," said a friend after, "it's a wonder they kept anything on at all.") Mattresses lay around singly or in piles. As the wedding approached, Héro stepped unexpectedly off the pulpit-balcony into thin air on wires and, as she alighted, continuing the theme of reuse, her long, white train became the tablecloth.

The costumes told us the setting was vaguely post-war. The acting was as theatrically sound as if this had been a spoken play. The lighting was mostly amber, presumably with Sicilian sunshine in mind.

We had a very good ensemble cast in which the women shone and Sophie K. stood out in particular. There were some unusually beautiful duets and ensembles, despite the fact that the director's determination to import grimness clashed with the tone of the score. The orchestra was on form, the chorus less so I thought: I've known them sound more sure of themselves. But it must have been hot up there...

La Monnaie's main house is under renovation, so a temporary "Palais de la Monnaie" has been erected, a modern, tent-like industrial hangar among old warehouses in Brussels' docks. Management seem more optimistic about how long this solution will be needed than our usherette, who is convinced it will last all next season. This is bad news. The "tent" offers no sound insulation whatever (in quiet moments you could actually hear birds cheeping on the roof) and is on the flight path planes follow (along the canal) to land at Zaventem. As the airport only opened on Sunday after the bombs, there were relatively few flights; but in future there will be plenty - not to mention children playing and police or ambulance sirens passing by, and the constant noise, inside, of blowers.

Sunday also turned warm. The sun on the tent made it uncomfortably hot inside, and this was just early April. And as, in the temporary structure, there are no balconies, people who usually have balcony seats find themselves too far away to see who is singing at any point. I must say I am now looking forward to Mitridate even less than I normally would...

9 Feb 2016

Verdi - Il Trovatore

ONP Bastille, Monday February 8 2016

Conductor: Daniele Callegari. Production: Alex Ollé. Sets: Alfons Flores. Costumes: Lluc Castells. Lighting: Urs Schönebaum. Il Conte di Luna: Ludovic Tézier. Leonora: Anna Netrebko. Azucena: Ekaterina Semenchuk. Manrico: Marcelo Alvarez. Ferrando: Roberto Tagliavini. Ines: Marion Lebègue. Ruiz: Oleksiy Palchykov. Un vecchio zingaro: Constantin Ghircau. Un messo: Cyrille Lovighi. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

When a man with a mike stood in front of the curtain and announced that Madame Netrebko, sick, would be replaced by Madame He, he was booed. Judging by the number of men in dark suits sporting Légion d’Honneur rosettes queuing to pick up free tickets half an hour before, it can’t have been because many had wasted their money. (This reminds me of something. Skip this parenthesis if you want to get on quickly to Trovatore. It reminds me of an evening at the Opéra Comique, some years back, when the minister of culture was on the front row of the balcony and Jérôme Savary, the director at the time, who had incidentally dubbed his house théâtre musical populaire, decided to seize the opportunity to make a cheeky speech about its popular success on a shoestring budget from the state and started by drawing the audience’s attention to the minister, adding: “He’s the only person here who hasn’t paid for his ticket.”)

Of course, this was a disappointment, though if a singer is really sick I don’t see what booing is supposed to do about it. I have only ever seen Anna Netrebko once, years ago, and that was an unsatisfactory evening of Bellini that contributed to the name of my blog. Since then she’s been hogged by the Met. But in the end, in any case, we had a bloody good Trovatore, as Trovatores go.

Hui He was not scheduled to sing in this production until February 20 so it was game of her to step in. Perhaps this was a last-minute change. If so, she can obviously be forgiven for being nervous. Through most of the range she has a smooth, warm, darkish, eminently “comfortable” timbre: a beautiful voice and one that carries in the Bastille. During the first part (there was one interval), my neighbour (as we found out chatting during it) had had exactly the same thought as I, which was that she was possibly lacking the high notes for the part, and might perhaps consider moving to mezzo roles. But it was hard to tell if the unfortunate accident with a top note in her first scene and the precariousness of later ones (sometimes flat, though "helped up" by the vibrato), occasional “holes” in the voice, or her tendency to rush ahead of the (already zippy) orchestra, were normal features of her singing today or due to nerves. Perhaps the latter, as by the end of the opera she seemed more at ease (relief at getting there relatively unscathed?) and her high notes were more fluent, though the tendency remained for them to fade in volume.

Losing Netrebko, we no doubt lost something, but less than we might have feared. We heard (and heard without straining, which is something these days in the vast Bastille) a lot of very beautiful singing, and if the acting was not so hot, well, that could be nerves too, or lack of rehearsal (with nearly two weeks to go before her scheduled debut); in any case, there wasn’t a huge amount of acting to do in this production (see below).

Ekaterina Semenchuk was an excellent Azucena, not quite as darkly chesty as some, dramatically and vocally powerful but always musical. Musical too, as usual, was Ludovic Tézier, who sailed through it. And while Marcelo Alvarez may not be the most thrilling singing actor, he’s generous and reliable: he can sing the notes, and if not quite solar, his top ones undeniably hit a spot. Secondary roles were well cast and the chorus improved as the evening advanced. Daniele Callegari went mostly for rapid tempi (I say “mostly” because once or twice I was then puzzled at how far he let Alvarez slow down). After audibly ragged triplets in the opening bars, the orchestra was on average form: “no better than they ought to be” as a late Scottish friend might have said. Perhaps on account of the cast change upsetting everyone a bit, all evening there were occasional problems of coordination between stage and pit.

I haven’t read any reviews yet, but suspect some critics will say this production relies more on its sets, costumes and lighting than actual directing. I’ll put a word in first for the lighting, as it struck me that it was a more than usually active contributor to the overall experience: you may often notice excellent lighting, but it isn’t often it comes across as a genuine protagonist. The set was ingenious: rows of giant, rectangular blocks were suspended on steel wires (four per block: one at each corner) and could be raised high above the stage or lowered and plugged – more or less - into rectangular holes in it. Less, and the effect was a kind of Stonehenge; more, with only the top poking out of the ground, it was a graveyard (sometimes with crosses added). Totally plugged in, forming a flat surface, the blocks left a forest of taut steel wires – tricky for the cast and chorus. Totally unplugged and up in the air, they left the holes: braziers, trenches or graves. This clever dispositif was totally modular, making various kinds of spaces possible, and backed on three sides by mirrors to make it seem still larger.

The repeated movements up and down could have become a wearisome gimmick; but the magnificent lighting, changing colour, casting shadows, highlighting soldiers in their dark trenches and glinting off their helmets, making broad stripes on the ground or great spotlight beams from a sky of cubist clouds (a) avoided boredom (or, to be more polite, ensured variety) and (b) crafted impressively painterly, highly graphic, geometric, almost expressionistic tableaux.

The costumes set the period at the outset: World War I uniforms with old-fashioned gas masks. Later, the nuns would have gas masks on shoulder straps over their white habits. That being once done, however, Ollé did very little to justify the decision, leaving it to the audience to think it through. If WWI was a “konzept” he didn’t really develop it – hampered by the sets, perhaps: all those wires to thread through and solid piers or gaping holes to avoid. No anvils, just a long, refugee-like trail of gypsies with babies, during the "Anvil Chorus" isn't really much to go on, and the principals' acting was operatic standard issue. Which is why I think the critics will complain (as they quite frequently do these days) that in a fancy set there was no actual directing. The production is visually sometimes quite splendid, indeed fascinating to look at, but the opera, as staged in it, might almost be a dramatic oratorio.

I, however, am not complaining. If I exclude Tcherniakov’s Brussels production, which I liked very much but is something of a special case, and make allowances for Hui He’s likely nerves, this was still, vocally and visually if not especially dramatically, the most satisfactory Trovatore I’ve ever seen and heard.

Here, Maestro Wenarto shows how it should be done. And here as well, demonstrating the development in his artistry. Here, a very moving Miserere.

7 Feb 2016

Cole Porter - Kiss Me Kate

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, Thursday February 4 2016

Conductor: David Charles Abell. Production: Lee Blakeley. Sets: Charles Edwards. Costumes: Brigitte Reiffenstuel. Choreography: Nick Winston. Lighting: Emma Chapman. Lilli Vanessi/Katharine: Christine Buffle. Fred Graham/Petruchio: David Pittsinger. Lois Lane/Bianca: Francesca Jackson. Bill Calhoun/Lucentio: Alan Burkitt. Hattie: Jasmine Roy. Paul: Fela Lufadeju. First Man (Gunman): Martyn Ellis. Second Man (Gunman): Daniel Robinson. Gremio: Jack Harrison-Cooper. Hortensio: Thierry Picaut. Harry Trevor/Baptista: Joe Sheridan. Ralph (Stage Manager)/Nathaniel: Damian Thantrey. Stage Doorman/Haberdasher: Franck Vincent. Cab driver: Thomas Boutilier. Gregory - Dance Captain: Ryan-Lee Seager. Philip: Sean Lopeman. Harrison Howell: John Paval. Orchestre de Chambre de Paris.

Cole Porter
I've said it before, e.g. when writing up Manon Lescaut in 2013: "If you leave at the interval, chances are someone will tell you it got better after." So sure enough, having quit Kiss Me Kate at half time, next morning I had an email saying: "A mistake. The first half did drag but you missed a side-splitting "Brush up your Shakespeare" from the two Mafiosi. I wept."

Oh, well. Why did we leave? Various reasons, I suppose. At least the e-mail chum agreed about the amplification: "Don't get me started on miking! I'm told the Châtelet's technology is old and that you can now get systems with more 'direction'. I'm fed up scrutinising faces to see who's singing." Exactly: it took too long to locate whose lips were moving, whether in dialogue or songs.

The women's New Look costumes were undeniably impressive, in fact almost stealing the show: "Stunning 1950s Dior-inspired gowns in the finale," said the friend, but there were plenty in part one as well. The men were dressed much like Gene Kelly in An American in Paris - wide, high-waisted trousers, cut too short, and short-sleeved shirts under sleeveless fairisle jumpers. All impeccably done. The on-stage, no-business-like-show-business rehearsal staging was conventional: a theatre name in white bulbs (proper ones, not EU-mandated scams); thickly-moulded, unmistakeably American proscenium arches; two red-brick "backstage" structures with iron stairs (topped with a busy wardrobe department with women at ironing boards), revolving to reveal dressing rooms as required. The "Italian" business took place in stylised cardboard sets that also looked, in period, like An American in Paris (the big ballet number).

We open in Venice
But as I watched this show, I remembered a recent discussion, on Parterre, about the NYCO's "renaissance" production of Tosca. There, I said: "I saw a Gioconda in Florence (with Dimitrova, so I heard it as well) that IIRC recreated the original, old designs. Result: it was just old-looking." It sounds as ungrateful as looking a gift horse in the mouth, but the late 40s/early 50s aesthetic was so thoroughly carried through that the production, while new, felt, as I mentioned to my friend in that morning-after e-mail exchange, like an old one warmed up.

And then, my experience of musicals has mostly been in New York. There, you wonder how they do it. They make it all look effortlessly easy and fun and bright as a button, as if there's nothing to it and they're loving every minute. For the first half hour of Kiss Me Kate it looked to me as thought the cast's hearts weren't altogether in it. The musical specialists (Alan Burkitt, Francesca Jackson) were more convincing than the operatic ones. Vintage scooters were a cute idea, but the performers looked unsteady and uneasy on them. After an hour, things warmed up: by the time of "I hate Men" Christine Buffle was visibly enjoying herself. But overall it was bon enfant, it was diligent, but this first half lacked the gleaming Broadway flair and finish.

"Je m'ennuie," said my companion. "You can stay if you want." I hesitated. But, miserable meanie that I must be, in the end I left.