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".

22 Apr 2015

Janacek - Jenufa

Hungarian National Opera, Budapest, Saturday April 18 2015

Conductor: Graeme Jenkins. Production: Attila Vidnyánszky. Sets and costumes: Olexander Bizolub. Buryja: Éva Balatoni. Laca Klemen: János Bándi. Steva Burya: Atilla Kiss B. Kostelnicka: Gyöngyi Lukács. Jenufa: Szilvia Rálik. Mill Foreman: Gábor Bretz. Mayor: László Szvétek. Mayor's wife: Katalin Gémes. Karolka: Krisztina Simon. Neighbour: Éva Várhelyi. Barena: Erika Markovics. Jano: Eszter Zavaros.

In Budapest on the whole singers don't hold back, but despite the commitment of the four principals this performance of Jenufa was not a great success for various reasons, some of them probably to do with it being a first night.

For a start, the two tenors had a problem with pacing. Vocally they were sharply contrasted: Attila Kiss B.'s voice is clear and brassy; János Bándi's is darker and, in timbre but not volume, softer. Both threw themselves almost alarmingly into the first act, and this time Kiss B. was in better act-one form than as Calaf in January. But by act two he was already strained, and János Bándi, though globally an admirable Laca, was audibly tired by act three.

I'd thought, again in January, that Szilvia Rálik would be better cast as Jenufa than as Turandot. She produced some great notes on Saturday night, and there were undoubtedly "moments", but for Jenufa, at the top her voice is in fact relatively hard, sometimes strident, and at the bottom, relatively weak, i.e. some of the role sits low for her. Also, her stage presence is more regal than young and innocent. So, though she is a local star and features in close-up on posters around the city, she was overshadowed somewhat by Gyöngyi Lukács as Kostelnicka: vocally expressive, not too chesty, acting sometime quite violently, but visually too young (Jenufa could have been her elder sister) and with an almost completely expressionless face. Gyöngyi Lukács got a bouquet flung at her; Szilvia Rálik not, which was embarrassing.

Everyone, soloists and chorus, had their eyes glued on the conductor and/or prompter, and chorus movements seemed clunky (occasionally cramping the the vigorous folk-dancers) and unsure, like the singing, which was hesitant and, for such large numbers, oddly faint-hearted. As was the orchestra, disappointingly bland and undramatic under Graeme Jenkins. Surely in Janacek the orchestra should be a genuine protagonist and have more impact and oomph.

The production was simple. It would be nice to say simple and effective, but it was really more simple but, on Saturday at any rate, disjointed. The act-one set had a large mill wheel at the back towards the left, and an all-purpose door to each side at the front. For act two, the wheel stayed in place, but to create the more intimate space needed, large nets were hauled up, interwoven with rags, and some basic furniture was brought on. In act three, the mill wheel had gone but there was a smaller one set up in the air to make a maypole, and a long table was placed diagonally across the raked floor.

The "idea" introduced at this point was not very convincing: extras brought on two-foot cubes of plastic ice and started piling them up. Once the baby had been found, a fourth block arrived wrapped in sacking. When this was pulled off it revealed not, fortunately, the baby with its red cap, but an angel figurine, complete with burning candle (yes: inside the ice). A miracle, I suppose it was meant to be.

Overall, the staging seemed, as I said above, clunky (including the lighting) and under-prepared. The costumes, however (unlike the sets, though by the same designer)  were very interesting. I don't know anything about Moravian folk dress, except that it is lavish; so I don't know if, in the inter-war period (which we could guess at from some chorus members in simple blouses and knee-length skirts), there were really 1930s variations on the folk theme, or if the idea of having smocked or embroidered and fringed or beribboned patches on the men's modern suits, for example, was the designer's. Whatever, this was a rare case of the costumes stealing the show from the sets or the production overall.

Dinner was at Callas. Neither the food nor the service is quite up to the prices charged (by Budapest standards), but it's right next to the main opera house, serves late, and above all is in a spectacular Wiener-Werkstätte-style hall. To our dismay, there were two violons, a double-bass and a piano bashing out anything and everything from pop songs to Mozart and Vivaldi concerti, making conversation impossible. In the corner next to us was a group of four very smartly-dressed people, all in black, one of whom, a young man with long fair hair and a violin case near his chair, paid more attention to the musicians than to his friends' conversation. Eventually he moved nearer, and finally, borrowed the main violin and launched into Bartok's Romanian Dances - all of them, as fortunately there was, it turned out after the first movement, a score to hand for the pianist. I don't know who this young violinist was, but this, not Jenufa, was the truly magical musical event of the evening. I shook his hand and thanked him as I left.

Maestro Wenarto sings the opening of Jenufa.