13 Oct 2015

Strauss - Ariadne auf Naxos

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Monday October 12 2015

Conductor: Kirill Petrenko. Ariadne/Prima Donna: Amber Wagner. Bacchus/Tenor: Jonas Kaufmann. Zerbinetta: Brenda Rae. Composer: Alice Coote. Music Master: Markus Eiche. Lackey: Christian Rieger. Brighella: Matthew Grills. Dancing Master: Kevin Conners. Harlequin: Elliot Madore. Major-Domo: Johannes Klama. Scaramuccio: Dean Power. Truffaldino: Tareq Nazmi. Officer: Petr Nekoranec. Wigmaker: John Carpenter. Naiad: Eri Nakamura. Dryad: Okka von der Damerau. Echo: Anna Virovlansky. Bayerisches Staatsorchester.

I hinted, in my report on Saturday’s Theodora, that it might have been better without the distractions of the bland production. I don’t know if we should call last night‘s Ariadne auf Naxos a concert performance or a semi-staged one. There were no sets or costumes and the orchestra was on-stage; but the singers, in evening dress, had no chairs or stands, and acted their parts out, all of them, with gusto. It was so successful, so wildly applauded it had me thinking back over the years to other successfully un-staged operas, the most memorable of all being a white-hot Elektra, in the same theatre in 1984, when Leonie Rysanek, Maureen Forrester and Ute Vinzing went at it hammer and tongs, bawling each other out in evening gowns, big hair and big jewels. That one is (or was) available on CD, by the way – and can be found online. The uncomfortable fact is – and of course I’m not the first to raise the point - that these “dramatic oratorio” opera performances are often more satisfactory than productions with sets and costumes and concepts you may or may not go along with. You can see and hear the singers better, and focus more tightly on the music and drama. Discuss.

Amber Wagner must be thanking Anja Harteros for dropping out of this gig. Not only did she get the chance to sing Ariadne opposite one of today’s best and best-looking tenors; she also scored a huge hit with the potentially awkward Parisians, who roared their approval. Ariadne sits, or at any rate, in the opera per se, starts low for sopranos. Not even the wonderful Lisa Della Casa sounds comfortable grubbing around down there. Amber Wagner has, fortunately, a really gorgeous lower range, with all the notes properly produced and in tune (including “Totenreich”) and a very, very nice husky, smoky undertone that she carries up with her almost to the very top (to be candid, I wondered if she's really a soprano and not a mezzo with a wide range). She makes good use of varied dynamics, and soars wonderfully when Strauss requires it – and of course, he often does. My neighbour was spellbound; and as I said, the audience roared. I would love to hear her in more Strauss. As Helena, for example (and preferably in the same kind of semi-staging, Helena being what it is).

And if she sang Helena, Brenda Rae would be more than welcome as Aithra. Such a relief to hear a Zerbinetta who has more body to her voice than a soubrette or nightingale (or pipsqueak). Brenda Rae’s sound is what’s often called “creamy” – for a lyric, coloratura soprano, relatively luscious. Yet she produces it naturally, almost as if speaking; and, like Ann Hallenberg in a different repertoire, rattling off Graun as if shelling peas, she makes it sound easy and looks as though she’s enjoying every second. Her “Großmächtige Prinzessin” brought the evening to a halt for some time.

Despite a cold, Jonas Kaufmann was the most convincing Bacchus I've ever had the good fortune to witness. He's often criticised for being too dark for his roles; but he was a very welcome change from the brighter kind of Heldentenor, whose purple-faced, near-apoplectic Bacchus tends to be nerve-racking: you never know when he will split or fluff a top note, or simply explode. A voice like Kaufmann's makes more sense of this famously thankless part. He forged through it, defeated by that cold only in the final bars, when his voice unfortunately caved in.

Alice Coote had my neighbour muttering "Quelle énergie, quelle énergie !" at the interval, and I knew exactly what he meant. The part is undeniably a gift to any mezzo with the energy and oomph to tackle it, and Coote, her voice perhaps brighter than the usual Composer, really threw herself into it, a thrilling performance with only one tiny and irrelevant accident.

Nearly all the casting was brilliant. I'll put in special mentions for Markus Eiche - really outstanding; Kevin Conners; and the wonderfully audible Okka von der Damerau, who, if not already a Valkyrie will surely soon become one (1). And the Bayerisches Staatsorchester under Petrenko was just the kind of orchestra I like: incisive and accurate, every detail (even in the trickiest meandering passages e.g. at the start of the Opera) legible, in place and in tune. Petrenko's tempi were brisk-ish throughout: no wallowing: the pulse under "Es gibt ein Reich" pulsated, it wasn't the bass-line to a dirge; and the three girls frolicked (vocally speaking) rather than lolling around, as they sometimes do. So we were out in time to get to the Turks' for dinner.

Here, Maestro Wenarto sings Zerbinetta.

(1) The IMG Artists website confirms this: "Other highlights this season include her debuts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra singing Bruckner's Te Deum under the baton of Riccardo Muti and with the Hong Kong Philharmonic singing Grimgerde in Wagner´s Die Walküre under Jaap van Zweden".

11 Oct 2015

Händel - Theodora

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Saturday October 10 2015

Conductor: William Christie. Production: Stephen Langridge. Choregraphy: Philippe Giraudeau. Sets and costumes: Alison Chitty. Lighting: Fabrice Kebour. Theodora: Katherine Watson. Irene: Stéphanie d’Oustrac. Didymus: Philippe Jaroussky. Septimius: Kresimir Spicer. Valens: Callum Thorpe. Les Arts Florissants.

An old friend of mine was too ill to go to the TCE for Theodora last night (hacking cough, like many in Paris at the moment - but people know Christie too well to dare hack their lungs out with him in the pit) and therefore asked for a report immediately after. As these e-mails or texts shot-off in the heat of the night while still abuzz from a show sum up one's main conclusions, I'll reproduce mine here:

Have you heard this Katherine Watson? If not you must try to get back to the TCE. I see she was a choral scholar at Trinity (1). That kind of background probably explains her degree of accomplishment and musicianship when yet so young. A very good partner to Jarrousky. This being the case, as you might expect, with all the unemphatic fluency of Les Arts Florissants in the hands of Christie himself, it was musically a great evening. The production, on the other hand, while harmless (it didn't prevent the singers projecting engagement and emotion) was bland and totally unoriginal. I say "harmless," but it's a shame it wasn't a more outstanding one: what an evening that would have made it!

So, yes, Katherine Watson struck me as remarkably accomplished and musical - a sweet soprano voice but with reserves of power, intelligently and sensitively used, taking me back to an earlier, "emerging HIP" British Händelian generation: the likes of Sheila Armstrong or Felicity Palmer. She's also pretty and a charismatic actress. I see (on her web site) that Hugh Canning (Sunday Times) has already said "Clearly one to watch". I had the same thought, and will look out for her in future. And when I say "good partner to Jarrousky," that's of course because he, too, is sweet-voiced, intelligent and sensitive. So their act two scenes together were what the French call a morceau d'anthologie - one for the annals.

The evening gave evidence, once more, that it's no use judging voices from recordings. I'd never been seduced by what I heard of Jaroussky so far, but discovered that, live, he has a very engaging, seductive timbre as well as an engaged and engaging presence on stage. His sometimes even languid phrasing, the purity of his held notes and sheer beauty of the top ones make up for the (common, I might say, among male altos) near-inaudibility of his lowest range. His voice is medium-to-low-powered (though not "incredibly small," as I'd been warned), hardly operatic, and with his unworldly demeanour and choirboy looks, he is anything but convincing as a wicked Roman soldier (though, in a drab uniform, he has something of the young Charles de Gaulle about him). But Theodora is not an opera after all, and he's perfectly convincing - and more: moving - as a Christian youth.

Callum Thorpe is another well-trained former chorister, in his case at Coventry Cathedral, with an undeniably striking bass voice, bright in timbre but cavernous beneath, and striking looks as well. He was, once or twice, a touch short-winded for long Händelian lines, taking breath mid-word, but that's a minor point: I'd be happy to hear him again any time. He made a youthful Valens, swamped, somewhat, in his uniform. Kresimir Spicer was quite a commanding Septimius, with an interesting timbre (though so grainy I did wonder if he had a cold coming on) put to real dramatic use, a wide dynamic range and great agility and accuracy. His diction was excellent. In this ruly context, Stéphanie d'Oustrac, with her relatively unruly voice, came across as the baroque equivalent of a character mezzo, a Händelian Azucena. Nothing wrong with that: it made a change.

Not much one can say about Christie and the orchestra and chorus of Les Arts Florissants. As you might expect, the music-making all evening was at the highest level - as I said above, totally yet unemphatically fluent. Händel's sublime late score was lovingly (at times really sublimely) phrased by Christie - more oratorio than dramatic: he did not play up the drama in, for example, the production's confrontation between Christians and Roman riot police.

Because, yes, riot police there were. As is so often the case these days, on the "baddies'" side, the leering men were got up in dinner jackets and the leering women in sparkling black ball gowns with extravagant hairdos and stilettos. The chorus, as usual, were not really cut out for convincing drunken revels and suggested high-class sex. The "goodies" were middle class lefties in beige linens, pale grey cotton and sensible, flat shoes, hugging each other (probably on the way to buy organic produce at inflated prices, it occurred to me) and sharing out bibles. No hint of sex. There were six handsome extras in riot gear and berets, fidgeting nervously with batons. The sets were sliding, ochre-coloured walls, against which rebels were (silently) shot, leaving blood splashes. There was, when required, a gold bust of the Emperor; there were even our old pals the iron bedsteads (though not the lone, unshaded light-bulb that usually hangs over them. A directorial oversight, no doubt). The on-stage martyrs' black-and white photos were posted up au fur et à mesure on the walls, eventually joined by what I think were real photos of real, modern-day martyrs. This was an attempt at seriousness, but the whole production was a bit too blandly, smoothly "luvvie" in overall style to convince.

Which was a pity. An outstanding production would have taken outstanding music-making to exceptional heights. Still, the singers projected their commitment in spite of the trivialising distractions, so I'm not complaining, and New York will get all the music without them. New Yorkers should go.

(1) Trinity College Cambridge.

28 Sep 2015

Adès - Powder Her Face

La Monnaie (at Halles de Schaerbeek), Brussels, Sunday September 27 2015.

Conductor: Alejo Pérez. Production: Mariusz Trelinski. Sets: Boris Kudlicka. Costumes: Marek Adamski. Lighting: Felice Ross. Video: Bartek Macias. Duchess: Allison Cook. Hotel Manager, Duke, Laundryman, Other guest: Peter Coleman-Wright. Electrician, Lounge Lizard, Waiter, Priest, Rubbernecker, Delivery boy: Leonardo Capalbo. Maid, Confidante, Waitress, Mistress, Rubbernecker, Society journalist: Kerstin Avemo. La Monnaie orchestra.

Thomas Adès
Brussels’ royal opera house is shut for renovation, so this season is peripatetic. On account of work, I missed what was apparently a fun (and more) production of L'Elisir d'Amore at the Cirque Royal two weeks back, being in Muscat instead. Powder Her Face took us to a former market hall in Schaerbeek, up near the Nord station, where the streets are lined with Turkish grocers’, cafés, restaurants and cake shops. So for a change, on an unusually sunny day for Brussels, we had Urfa kebabı, İskender and künefe for lunch before the show.

It’s always hard to form an opinion of a production of a work you don’t know. But having read the libretto (with its stage directions) and reviews of other productions, it seems to me Trelinski’s relentlessly dark-and-sleek-and-shiny-but-sordid approach, fiddling with the action, actually diminished the work’s dramatic potential. I would imagine UK productions, at least, would have been a bit more “Shakespearean”, with irony, even fun, up front making the tragic end more tragic. In Trelinksi’s version, the Duchess, more a Lulu-like victim than a former deb of the year, staggers around in a dazed, drugged or drunken stupor from start to finish, slashing her wrists in the bath at the end (rather than walking off with the gramophone, as suggested in the stage directions); any humour is kind-of-forced upon the reluctant director by the text and score.

A hotel bedroom
As to fiddling with the action… Unless I was more than usually inattentive, the 1936 13-scene “pantomime” – surely quite an important bit of business? - was simply ditched: the Maid as Waitress sang her extraordinary “Fancy Aria” in front of a dazzling tinsel curtain. The famous fellatio scene was here set in a Hopper-esque American petrol (i.e. “gas”) station, with a small diner to the left and petrol pumps to the right (not vice-versa as in Hopper's painting), and the Duchess drove on in a little red MG – a distinctly British choice in the this distinctly un-British setting. This made her attempts to call for room service, from a pay-phone on the diner wall, senseless and looked to me like directorial self-indulgence. The fellation was soon sex, first frontal, then anal.

For the record… The old market hall, totally blacked out, offered plenty of space for the action. The chamber orchestra was up at the back, behind us. On the left was the long, fancily-papered wall of a hotel corridor, with wall lights and numbered doors. It was used for black-and-white projections of pre-war footage evoking, e.g. the Duchess’s first marriage. On the right, a nod to Amsterdam’s red-light district, was (sometimes) the graffiti-marked façade of what was presumably some sort of sex club, with muscular young men, bare-chested in leather and masks, writhing in strobe lights behind the unwashed windows. Twice the Duchess entered under the “Open” neon sign.

The main stage, with a revolving ring bringing on and taking off props, was glossy black marble with a central inlay. This black gloss, the overall design scheme and the Duchess’s costumes and demeanour reminded me of the boring “glam-trash” perfume commercials that come on TV around Christmas (intentionally? Her scent – Joy - is mentioned in the text, and in this production she slashes her veins with the broken bottle). It opened with the Duchess’s bathroom, but was at other times the Savoy lobby, with revolving doors; an art deco living room with a giant satin couch; a bedroom for the court scene, with the Duke/Judge emerging form under the covers and the Rubberneckers watching events on TV, eating crisps from a decidedly un-50s plastic bag; that Hopper-esque petrol station; or hidden by the aforementioned tinsel curtain. The Maid and Electrician, at the end, were replaced by child tango dancers in Fred-and-Ginger outfits.

Musically the afternoon was excellent. Perhaps the orchestra could have been a bit more incisive; perhaps the scenes could have been driven by with a touch more impetus; but perhaps that was just me. With such a strong cast, it would be nitpicking to single out minor shortcomings that might anyway have been figments of my drowsy, Sunday-afternoon imagination. So though it may look like a cop-out, I'll just say a big bravo to them all for both singing and acting, and hope to see some or all of them again, in new repertoire or old.

7 Jul 2015

Cilea - Adriana Lecouvreur

ONP Bastille, Monday July 6 2015

Conductor: Daniel Oren. Production: David McVicar. Sets: Charles Edwards. Costumes: Brigitte Reiffenstuel. Lighting: Adam Silverman. Choreography: Andrew George. Maurizio: Marcelo Alvarez. Il Principe di Bouillon: Wojtek Smilek. L’Abate di Chazeuil : Raúl Giménez. Michonnet: Alessandro Corbelli. Quinault : Alexandre Duhamel. Poisson : Carlo Bosi. Adriana Lecouvreur : Angela Gheorghiu. La Principessa di Bouillon : Luciana D’intino. Madamigella Jouvenot : Mariangela Sicilia. Madamigella Dangeville: Carol Garcia. Paris Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

Having slept on it, I’ve decided it was actually quite nice to end the season with an “old-fashioned” evening of Italian opera: stand-and-deliver singing by a strong cast in period costumes and sets and no regie soul-searching. I wouldn’t want this sort of thing very often – especially not Adriana: once every 20 years is enough – but the audience evidently liked it: unusually, for Paris, half of them actually stood to clap at the end and were still standing, clapping, when the house lights went up. Perhaps this is the sort of staging London critics like, too, rather than the William Tell that has so upset them recently.

David McVicar’s production has been around; Paris is its last stop. Like traditional Met ones, it relies almost entirely on “lavish” sets and costumes for impact, not acting or ideas. Perhaps Adriana is regie-proof and a traditional approach is wise; but as a friend pointed out, it’s a work with weaknesses that can do with some help. The one hint at a concept is “all Adriana’s world’s a stage”: the set is dominated (and the stage almost filled) by a revolving wooden theatre we see from the back, the wings or the front as the production requires. In act one we see it from behind, then from the wings. In act two its neo-classical front, set at an angle, with pastel-coloured columns and flying figures trumpeting round a coat of arms in the pediment, serves as the villa by the Seine. In act three, we have it full-frontal for the ballet at the Hôtel de Bouillon. In act four, we are behind it again, and a stove has appeared for Adriana to throw her poisoned violets into.

As a full-sized, working theatre is a very large object, it tends to cramp to the front a whole flea-market of period props: screens, sofas, bandy-legged desks, chairs, candelabras, and drapery matching the brocaded, Watteau-inspired costumes that somehow remain solidly, prosaically un-French in cut and cloth (I assume they were not made in the Paris Opera’s workshops). To either side are the high, shabby back-sides of what we assume are painted sets. These could, I thought, usefully have been omitted: the theatre-within-a-theatre might have been more effective and would certainly have given the cast and chorus more breathing-space revolving alone on an empty stage. Instead, these side shutters add to the clutter and restriction of movement (though they do give the Princess her “secret exit” in act two).

This kind of staging - elaborate but undemanding melodrama - suited the singers.

Alvarez, not a born actor, seemed totally at ease in this environment and sang (even acted) better than ever. He got the loudest applause. Luciana d’Intino was clearly also more comfortable here than wielding a pistol as Amneris in Py’s over-the-top Aida. She’s a very solid trouper, with not-too-chesty chest notes and glorious, grainy top ones that remind me of Shirley Verrett, which is saying something. As Michonnet, Alessandro Corbelli was spot-on both vocally and dramatically, not overdoing the “character” side of the part that's more marked in those of Il Principe and L'Abate, impeccably carried through by Wojtek Smilek and Raúl Giménez.

This was only the second time I had seen Angela Gheorghiu on stage, the first having been something like 15 years ago. She seems to be the target of a lot of criticism, even mockery, on websites. Is this because of her behaviour (e.g., but not only, cancellations) and pronouncements? Like the others mentioned above, she is no doubt better cast in a production of this kind than a regie one, her acting skills being what they are – although here I thought she did a very creditable job of dying, poisoned, at the end. Her voice, understandably, no longer sounds as young as she tends to act, and the highest note in the score was strained. It is also, for the Bastille, too small: even on the fourth row, at times I could see her lips moving but hear nothing. But at other times, while her lips barely parted at all, let alone moved, she gave us some gorgeous singing of a kind we rarely hear these days – presumably one of the reasons she’s quite often called an “old-fashioned diva”: "honey and cream," said my neighbour, liquid and smooth. And I heard none of the intonation problems people now complain of. So she scored a real hit, alongside Alvarez and the rest of the cast: applause for Alvarez, at curtain-calls, was loudest, but applause for “Poveri Fiori” was, during the opera, longest; unusually long by today’s standards.

The orchestra was at its very best. Regarding Daniel Oren’s conducting, I can’t put it better than Avant-Scène Opéra: the score was “conduite avec son engagement coutumier par un Daniel Oren généreux d’élans fougueux mais aussi de nuances impalpables, et attentif au plateau en toute circonstance". His concentration and commitment were visible from where I was sitting, and the impalpable quality at its most striking in the prelude to act IV : I’ve rarely heard such beguiling pianissimi at the Bastille. Or anywhere else, come to think of it, since Tristan in Vienna.

Maestro Wenarto sings "Io son l'umile ancella".

31 May 2015

Messiaen - Turangalîla-Symphonie

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Wednesday May 27 2015

Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen. Piano: Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Ondes Martenot: Valérie Hartmann-Claverie. Philharmonia Orchestra. 

The Philharmonia's Turangalîla under Salonen on Wednesday evening came across, from where I was sitting, as a massive display of scorching orchestral fire-power: the brass and percussion blasting away like heavy artillery at the rear, the dry English woodwind's lighter artillery and the searing, steely siren sounds of the strings in the middle, and at the front, celesta and glockenspiel scattering gleaming, ear-piercing shrapnel, the wailing shells of the ondes Martenot, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard manning a one-man machine gun battery, shooting off salvos of bullets with deadly accuracy and taking no prisoners. Tempi were relatively brisk, Messiaen's sudden silences were deafeningly abrupt, the overall effect was more martial than loving, and apart from brief moments of respite, it was either loud, very loud, or just brutally loud: no half measures, it seemed... from where I was sitting.

Turangalila in Valencia
That, I think, was the problem. The TCE has the mad idea that top-category seats include the front rows. Not quite so mad for opera, when the orchestra is in a pit, but here I found myself in the middle of row two, staring at the string section's (impeccable) socks and the underbelly of the Steinway and perfectly placed to hear the excellent Aimard's strenuous grunting and groaning (I note you can also hear it on the BBC's broadcast of the same concert in London), especially during Jardin du sommeil d'amour. I had a very nice nod and smile from the lady at the celesta above me to the left. From such a position, of course the balance is totally skewed: the piano, celesta and glockenspiel dominate, and at moments of goodness knows how many fs, you just can't tell what's going on behind. I heard, from someone on row eleven, that it was an amazingly accurate, detailed performance - the audience behind me went wild - but, as Gershwin might have said, not for me. I'd bought this concert deliberately to hear the Philharmonia "on display" but was disappointed simply to be deafened by a maelstrom of sheer sound.

I already have my tickets for the TCE's next season. I've decided, therefore, to check the rows and, if necessary, ask for different seats.

Classical Iconoclast reviewed the London concert (which also included some Debussy) in detail.

To see Turangalila in Valencia, click here.
To see a video of an unforgettable night of Turangalila, click here.

26 May 2015

Chausson - Le Roi Arthus

ONP Bastille, Paris, Monday May 25 2015

Conductor: Philippe Jordan. Production: Graham Vick. Sets and costumes: Paul Brown. Lighting: Adam Silverman. Genièvre: Sophie Koch. Arthus: Thomas Hampson. Lancelot: Roberto Alagna. Mordred: Alexandre Duhamel. Lyonnel: Stanislas de Barbeyrac. Allan: François Lis. Merlin: Peter Sidhom. Un Laboureur: Cyrille Dubois. Un Chevalier: Tiago Matos. Un Écuyer: Ugo Rabec. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

If I seemed reserved in my praise of the musical side of Sunday's Ballo in Brussels, I can be quite unreserved about that of Le Roi Arthus last night: it was simply magnificent, as magnificent, sensitive yet generous a performance as you could hope to hear. Having said that, what can I usefully add? (Eight more paragraphs, perhaps?)

Though I've seen it before in Brussels, like most of us, I imagine, I know the work mainly from Jordan senior's recording with Teresa Żylis-Gara. That being so, I was surprised to see Sophie Koch cast as Genièvre. She brings a dark, mezzo timbre to the part and of course strains at the very top notes in act two, but there's only a sprinkling of those, and her commitment, intelligence and musicanship carry her through (despite the unglamorous, middle-class-housewife costume imposed on her: a lacy white summer dress and irredeemably sensible, stout-heeled sandals).

Anyone who wonders if Alagna might now be past his peak can feel reassured. Not only does he look, physically, as if he's found some sort of elixir of youth (so you think: I'll have some of what he's having, please); but, provided you're OK with his now-darker, smokier sound, he might well be singing better than ever. And if his voice is darker and smokier, it still has the projecting edge to carry and support his excellent diction: no need to glance at the supertitles. His was a heroic performance (Lancelot gets lots to sing) and the duets, even with the pair of them (and Genièvre in her stout, sensible sandals) rolling in the grass like teenagers, were marvellous.

Also, anyone who thinks Thomas Hampson is showing signs of wear can think again. Well, perhaps there are signs of his lower range diminishing; perhaps the one or two very high notes were strained; but his performance was magnificently acted (see? magnificent again) and musically near-impeccable. The scene where he shares his disappointments with a tearful Merlin was, thanks also to Peter Sidhom's abounding sincerity as he wept, moving indeed.

Glastonbury Tor
So not only did we have the best available cast for the principles; the secondary roles were unusually well cast too, giving us a chance to admire Cyrille Dubois' bright Laboureur and Stanislas de Barbeyrac's softer, elegant Lyonnel. Both had excellent diction. Even the smallest roles were filled seriously - and with a degree of charm.

The chorus was on blistering form, and the orchestra at its very best: magnificent again, loving, sensitive yet generous under Jordan junior, and standing in the pit, arms raised to applaud him and the cast loudly at the curtain calls - to a triumph in the house of a kind we rarely see these days. The expression is, I think, "in a zone" - this was the kind of fully-committed, unhesitant and unstinting playing that makes you very nearly forget there's a production going on around it.

Which in this case was possibly a good thing. Not that Graham Vick's staging wasn't bright and fresh and well-rehearsed. The trouble was it wasn't really comprehensible. The curtain went up on a gathering, against a photographic backdrop of Glastonbury Tor, of what looked like (a) the kind of New-Age, vegetarian tree-huggers who might take an interest in age-old legends (and listen to Celtic folk songs or live in the Triangle); (b) husky outdoor types with hiking boots and teeshirts under layers of warm, weatherproof clothing (Arthus, Lancelot and the knights); and (c) beer-bellied builders in hard hats, whose wives (lots of crochet, and yellow flowers in their hair) brought them baskets of lunch. A typical west-of-England (or West Wales) crowd, these days, I suppose. But the men were arranged in a circle, holding swords to the ground, while the floor and two walls of a prefabricated house were lowered for assembly - hence the presence of Bob the Builder. Once the bookshelves were installed, Genièvre was borne in aloft on a strikingly ugly, boxy, red vinyl settee, and a coffee table (round, geddit?) was set up with a vase of flowers and a picture of the happy couple (she and Arthus). The house was encircled by swords planted in the stage, roped together.

Roberto Alagna
As the opera progressed and the idyll (so we presumed) faded - and after Lancelot and Genièvre had rolled around in the rectangular patch of artificial biodiversity to the right - the Glastonbury backdrop ended up blackened (as did Genièvre's lacy frock and indeed everything else), the house, on its side in act two, was finally overturned and charred, and the glossy red settee went up in flames (to the audience's relief, quipped one critic in the press). Who was this Arthus then? A bookish king in his prefab suburban castle? A professor? Just an ordinary husband? He didn't actually smoke a pipe, but in his cable-knit cardigan he might well have sucked on one as he took another bardish volume off the shelves. What was the Glastonbury gathering up to? Some kind of re-enactment, as people do of battles, or west-country fête with a nod at local Arthurian legend? How did they end up shortly after in rival gangs, the rebels' bare torsos smeared with blood, battling to the death with swords? Why were they referred to as knights at all? As a friend remarked, it's no longer really PC to ask these questions; and certainly I'm no fan of "traditional" stagings and every inch a fan or Warlikowski; and indeed I could see that there was something here about the vanity of ideals in a wicked world; and yes, it was well directed.

But it was illegible. Not that that mattered, because it was simply swept away by the music. Magnificent.

25 May 2015

Verdi - Un Ballo in Maschera

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday May 24 2015

Conductor: Carlo Rizzi. Concept and Production: Àlex Ollé (La Fura dels Baus). Sets: Alfons Flores. Costumes: Lluc Castells. Lighting: Urs Schönebaum. Video: Emmanuel Carlier. Gustav III: Riccardo Massi. René Ankarström: Scott Hendricks. Amelia: Monica Zanettin. Ulrica Arfvidsson: Marie-Nicole Lemieux. Oscar: Ilse Eerens. Cristiano: Roberto Accurso. Ribbing: Tijl Faveyts. Horn: Carlo Cigni. Un Giudice: Zeno Popescu. Un Servo: Pierre Derhet. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie.

Verdi meets censor
This Ballo, involving a couple of interesting young singers, was musically quite satisfactory overall, and at times excellent.

Scott Hendricks is a baritone I've admired at La Monnaie and the Bastille in the past. Yesterday his singing was fairly blustery (and he looked quite grumpy at the curtain calls), but that was alright, once his character had gone bad. Marie-Nicole Lemieux was as excellent an Ulrica as you'd expect: vocally sumptuous and radiating presence. Ilse Errens had a shaky start but eventually very nearly made Oscar, here played as a woman, a tolerable character - I've said before it's one I could totally live without - I think I once said Oscar should be shot.

Monica Zanettin is particularly interesting: her voice is powerful and dark, sometimes almost plummy, at risk of turning to what my neighbour called "bouillie" - porridge, more or less - but with a strong counteracting graininess. She is also obviously charismatic, not an easy thing to achieve when everyone is masked - see below. "Ecco l'orrido campo" was especially impressive. Vocal and dramatic charisma are what Riccardo Massi, on the other hand, lacked: left to his own devices, he had the awkward, ambling demeanour of a beefy but amiable local butcher or baker. Yet he has, it seems, been a stunt-man and as Radamès at the Met he was described as an "alert actor" so perhaps this was the director's fault. He has an agreeable timbre and seems to reach the high notes with ease, but I did wonder whether he shouldn't be singing Mozart, at this stage, rather than, already, Radamès. The pair of them unfortunately got briefly lost in "Oh, qual soave brivido", a sign, perhaps, of inexperience that threw them for a while afterwards.

As I've often said before, the Monnaie orchestra is good at Verdi, but I found Carlo Rizzi's conducting a bit placid and lacking in nervous energy: zip. The chorus was, however, on cracking form.

Underground car park, 1861
There was nothing intrinsically unworkable about Àlex Ollé's Orwellian concept, for which he was rather grandly credited first, above the conductor, on the website, as if it was going to be something startlingly new and bold, which it wasn't: one stifling totalitarian regime replacing another. The set was the concrete bunker every European house should now have in stock; in this case, quite a handsome one of concentric rectangles, open towards the audience, of dangling square pillars that could be let down to form spaces of various sizes - small, medium, large - in a forest of columns resembling an underground car park - but also recalling period engravings. Dusty grey "period" furniture made a ghostly reference to the 18th century. The lighting was good - changing colour, for example, to red for the "orrido campo". After an opening video of the multiple horrors of the modern world (apart from cat photos on Facebook) projected on a naked body, Gustav the dictator's personality cult was embodied in projections of a gleaming silver head or his masked face.

All the cast, soloists, chorus and extras, wore dusty grey, blue, purple or black suits, numbered across the back, and - as so very often in these updates - strutted round, like super-efficient, super-officious  consultants and secretaries, with briefcases and notepads (which surely, in a production set in the near future, should really have been iPads?). All wore a kind of sci-fi second skull, in latex, that symbolised oppression and must have been very uncomfortable on a warm May afternoon. These rubber masks were only pulled off once, as a sign of rebellion, by Ulrica and her followers.

Extra masks, gleaming silver, were added for the ball, and for the final coup de théâtre, the conspirators pulled on gas masks as, during the pardon, smoke filled the hall under yellow lights, the face on the screen at the rear changed, and Gustav and his court were gassed to death, one and all. So no-one could say Ollé hadn't taken the "maschera" in the title to heart.

This grim concept was, as I said, not unworkable, but surprisingly Ollé did little to help it succeed. As making Gustav a baddie as bad as his successors goes against the grain of the work as is, surely he should have helped Massi act nasty, but, again as I said, the singers, once the concept was established, were left to themselves to play the opera out as if it had been a traditional production in a provincial backwater. That, I think, was a lost opportunity: neither the cast's potential nor the production's was fully realised.

Maestro Wenarto sings "Ecco l'orrido campo".
Followed by "Morro, ma prima in grazia".