1 Apr 2015

Massenet - Le Cid

ONP Garnier, Monday March 30 2015

Conductor: Michel Plasson. Production: Charles Roubaud. Sets: Emmanuelle Favre. Costumes: Katia Duflot. Lighting: Vinicio Cheli. Chimène: Sonia Ganassi. L’Infante: Annick Massis. Rodrigue: Roberto Alagna. Don Diègue: Paul Gay. Le Roi: Nicolas Cavallier. Le Comte de Gormas: Laurent Alvaro. Saint Jacques: Francis Dudziak. L’Envoyé maure: Jean-Gabriel Saint-Martin. Don Arias: Luca Lombardo. Don Alonzo: Ugo Rabec. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris. 

I've often said it's much easier to describe a bad evening at the opera than a good one. There was something special about Monday night's Le Cid at Garnier, yet it was far from flawless, so I've been wondering what gave it that particular buzz.

For a start, it can't have been the production, which was pretty much forgettable. By setting the work in the Spain of the 1930s, Charles Roubaud raised expectations of a concept (Rif war? Civil war?) which were not fulfilled: the updating was merely aesthetic. The sets managed to reproduce convincingly the curious, drab, buff-coloured anonymity of official interiors, notably a kind of courthouse with tiers of seats on either side of a doorway topped with a massive bronze lion. Chimène's bedroom was, here, a soulless, sparsely-furnished saloon with a giant art deco grille over the shuttered window, a couple of Ruhlmann-style commodes and small pink armchairs and sofas reminiscent of the Théâtre des Champs Elysées. Rodrigue's camp was a bare war-room with maps at the rear and a fluorescent-lit ceiling. The men were, understandably, in uniforms - all sand-coloured, but with green or red braid, depending on their allegiance; the women in white court dresses, or what were, I think, in the 30s called afternoon frocks, with mantillas and fluttering fans.

It wasn't the acting, either, limited (with the exception of Sonia Ganassi's Chimène, more of which later) to pacing (Don Diègue, with cane), being regal (Annick Massis, draped in a pink stole and doing it exceptionally well) or, in the case of Roberto Alagna, kneeling when necessary (to get dubbed or to pray) and otherwise, feet apart, just standing and delivering, à l'ancienne.

Nor was all the singing obviously outstanding. Garnier was certainly a better place for Paul Gay to be singing than the Bastille, and the king and count were good enough ("no better than they ought to be," a late Scottish friend of mine might have said). Annick Massis was undeniably sumptuous and I only wish I'd seen and heard her more often and that her role as the Infanta had given her more to do than just empathise with Chimène and project fabulous aigus over the magnificent chorus.

Regarding Sonia Ganassi, a respected acquaintance whose opinion is always sound found, as usual, the mot juste, saying she did not think it quite the right role for her, but "She is an earnest artist, at least". Sonia Ganassi threw herself into it with more than enough earnest endeavour to make up for not quite achieving the right degree of pathos: "Pleurez mes yeux" was visibly heartfelt yet not, in the end, very moving and not, in terms of applause, the show-stopper it ought to be. It was tough luck, too, that Ganassi's parting top note went awry. Top marks for commitment, though.


Even discreetly but frequently stifling a cough, even with the slightly sinusy-sounding timbre of a tenor with a cold and the need to cut climactic top notes prudently (and uncharacteristically) short, Roberto Alagna reminded us what a rare and thrilling thing a truly great singer is and how much more usual it is for us to make do with less-than-great ones. His voice was resounding and his diction, by today's standards, astounding (I had, for example, to look up to the supertitles when Ganassi was singing). Le Cid is largely Rodrigue's opera, or if it isn't, Alagna made it so, playing it not for subtlety, by any means, but, as my neighbour put it at the interval, for testosterone: "C'est un petit coq".

And then there was Plasson in the pit. I have rarely heard the (potentially cantankerous) Paris Opera orchestra respond so movingly to a conductor, with gorgeous woodwind playing (e.g. in the introduction to "Pleurez mes yeux") and a truly magnificent instrumental reprise of "Ô souverain". The score was chopped up (you could see the orchestral parts in the pit plastered with large squares of blank paper) and the ballets were, as seems to be considered quite normal these days, omitted, leaving the Infanta's alms-giving scene oddly stranded, but Plasson achieved a performance of rare fervour and intensity, and the (potentially cantankerous) orchestra stayed in the pit to stand and applaud him on stage.

It all added up to an evening of opera that brought the words "good old days" to my mind or, as my neighbour put it: "Ça, c'est de l'opéra" - flawed, as opera is almost bound to be when you consider how much has to go right and thus can go wrong, one way or another, yet exciting. This was one of those relatively few evenings that make forking out the exorbitant annual fees and sitting through so many flaccid or humdrum performances (supposing you dont leave at the interval) worthwhile.

Laurie Anderson sings "O Superman".

Maestro Wenarto sings "Pleurez mes yeux".

28 Mar 2015

Dodo 1945-2015

'In the final act, now with dark hair (change of wig: Warlikowski), smoking again in her tightly-belted leather coat, high heels and sunglasses and complaining, as the little old lady next to me pointed out, of darkness closing in (“Take your bloody glasses off, then” the old lady had thought), did she really look ill?'

No more remarks like that from the little old lady (to read more, just type "old lady" in the search box). She left us for good on Thursday morning.

9 Feb 2015

Händel - Tamerlano

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday February 8 2015

Conductor: Christophe Rousset. Production: Pierre Audi. Sets and Costumes: Patrick Kinmonth. Lighting: Matthew Richardson. Tamerlano: Christophe Dumaux. Bajazete: Jeremy Ovenden. Asteria: Sophie Karthäuser. Andronico: Delphine Galou. Irene: Ann Hallenberg. Leone: Nathan Berg. Zaide: Caroline D’Haese. Les Talens Lyriques.

The last time I heard Tamerlano was in 2005, in concert, so I was glad to see it appear again in La Monnaie’s 2014-2015 schedule – staged, this time. Pierre Audi’s production, originally conceived for Drottningholm in 2000, is not traditional – I mean, it doesn’t attempt to reconstruct a period performance. But it is conservative to the point of austerity. “No fellatio this time," a friend noted at the interval.

The bare boards are framed by a receding succession of grey panels, blueish or greenish, depending on the lighting, with simple pilasters, and mouldings picked out in gold. They provide multiple openings to the wings for entries and exits. Only in the second half (act two of the three was split to make for one interval) does a single wooden chair make an appearance, symbolising the throne. As often in opera, the chair is much manhandled, thrown down and set up again. The scenery at the rear eventually gives way to wooden walls, and painted clouds come down to hide the moulded panels.

The costumes are period in form, beautifully cut and, for the women, stiffly corseted, but plain, in a palette of sober colours: cream, champagne, taupe, grey, plum, purple, dark blue, burgundy, brown or black. Each character’s colour changes with the acts. No extravagant wigs. The lighting is simple but well done, often from the sides and sometimes, at moments of crisis, stark.

Apart from Bajazet's eventual bare-chested ranting, the action is expressed through modest, measured, well-practised gestures and glances, a certain amount of meaningful pacing around and a little bit too much lying on the floor. Quite often, characters being thought or talked (i.e. sung) about make silent appearances. Bajazet is more expressionistic and Dickensian-looking (Scrooge-like) than the others, with long grey hair and twisted, tortured limbs. Tamerlano is sometimes courteous, sometimes serpentine and sardonic, sometimes exasperated or petulant to the point of fury. Irene is regal, with a straight back; Leone somewhat put-upon, with a bad one. Andronico and Asteria have less clearly-marked personalities, other than the usual one of star-crossed young lovers.

I'm often surprised at how unprepared people are when they come to the opera, in some cases enquiring "What have we got tonight?" as they enter the house. Like many, my Belgian neighbours plunged into their programmes at half time to see who the singers that had most impressed them were. "Asteria has a beautiful voice. And Irene - Irene's is very beautiful." In a cast that was, on the whole, excellent, Sophie Karthäuser and Ann Hallenberg were nevertheless the stars, or at any rate best suited the dimensions of La Monnaie. Both are able to project a full and subtle range of both dynamics and emotions into the house.

Beyazit I
This raised, for the ignoramus I am, the question of how casting works. It seemed odd ("a waste," said my neighbour, and the usherette agreed, saying others had made the same remark), not to cast Ann Hallenberg in the more prominent and taxing role of Andronico. She has the dramatic power that Delphine Galou (whose agility is not in question) is unable to muster, e.g. in the likes of "Chi vide mai più sventurato amante ?" and can maintain volume during rapid passages and in the lower range, making her a more suitable partner for Sophie Karthäuser. Taxed as she was, Delphine Galou came across as relatively monochrome and underpowered; it might have been more sensible to offer her Irene.

I like Christophe Dumaux, even if he always sounds and acts much the same (I've often thought that if you like Bruckner, you're glad all his symphonies sound alike). For a start, unlike some countertenors, he's audible and doesn't sound like steam escaping from a rusty pipe. He was a suitably serpentine, sardonic, petulant Tamerlano. Jeremy Ovenden (whose voice reminded me of Nigel Robson in Gardiner's recording) was an excellent Bajazet in all registers, from tenderness to rage. Nathan Berg sang Leone as a character part, if you see what I mean, whether deliberately or to make a virtue of necessity was impossible to tell. I wasn't alone in wondering. The empty stage was, however, kind to no-one, acoustically speaking, so the voices (apart from Karthäuser's and Hallenberg's) often seemed a touch remote (to be candid, I did sometimes wish I had an ear trumpet with me), and this combined with the understated production to limit the overall dramatic impact. Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques gave us their usual combination of bounce, vigour, careful shaping, and accuracy.

La Monnaie alternated performances of Tamerlano and Alcina. Here, Maestro Wenarto sings "Tornami a vagheggiar", with interesting fingerwork.

3 Feb 2015

Puccini - Tosca

Lyric Opera, Chicago, Monday February 2 2015, -11° C

Conductor: Dmitri Jurowski. Production: John Caird. Designer: Bunny Christie. Lighting: Duane Schuler. Tosca: Tatiana Serjan. Cavaradossi: Brian Jagde. Scarpia: Evgeny Nikitin. Angelotti: Richard Ollarsaba. Sacristan: Dale Travis. Spoletta: Rodell Rosel. Sciarrone: Bradley Smoak. Shepherd: Annie Wagner. Jailer: Anthony Clark Events. Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

In (freezing, of course) Chicago for work, I decided to take the opportunity to hear, in Tosca, two singers new to me: Tatiana Serjan, who has sung a lot of Verdi, often with Muti; and Brian Jagde, a young American tenor who will be new to most people, standing in for Misha Didyk.

Jagde has a big, bold voice of the “Domingo-tenor” kind, with darkish-gold undertones but a bright top, able really to nail the highest notes in the score without hesitation. He was better at loud than soft, and neither looked nor sounded Latin (his acting had more frat-boy charm than gravitas), but perhaps more subtlety, dynamic variety and general smoochiness will come with experience. At any rate, he delivered some real thrills, which these days is far from guaranteed.

Serjan has a biggish voice too, though not as big as I’d imagined from hearing YouTube clips – not that I trust those any more than they deserve – with a lot of metal to it and just enough “edge”. On the whole I’d say she saved her best singing for the best bits, and then it was really very, very good. I often find “Vissi d’arte” a tedious interruption (same goes for “O mio babbino caro”) but here, as Serjan is a convincing singing actress, it was urgent and vital, one of the best I’ve ever heard. Just two reservations: instead of opening out generously, her topmost notes, while in tune and by no means sounding perilous, closed disappointingly into a rapid vibrato; and her diction was as hot-potato as it comes.

Nikitin was as worrying as ever. You always think something is about to go badly wrong, but it doesn’t. His singing seems to be more and more "Russian" - I don’t really know how to describe what I mean: a kind of wild, throw-away style that’s sometimes close to Sprechgesang but is oddly effective. For Scarpia, his voice is relatively light, but while critics have said he lacked “noirceur” (well, perhaps not using that particular French word but I know what I mean) and he strained at the top, I still found him stylish.

Dmitri Jurowski’s conducting was placid and disconcertingly low key, but there were admittedly/undeniably some tender, loving moments. The playing was not always strictly together, surprisingly for an American orchestra, and coordination with the stage was shaky: it seemed to me that at one point in act two the singers were genuinely lost for a few bars. The chorus, however, was very good.

The production had some ideas, not especially convincing. The space was the same in all three acts: a gloomy hall, serving as church, palace (sort of: see later) and prison, with a gaping hole in the roof and a couple of shell-holes at the back. War-torn, we assumed. Also, each act opened with one of those flimsy curtains popular in the eighties being brought down and dragged off, and, as back then, one of them got stuck on a bit of scenery and had to be prised off by a stage-hand. The first was white with bloodstains; the second red and black; the last black and red.

The grim, narrow church looked more protestant than Roman, and when the crowd arrived in equally gloomy costumes from the period Puccini composed the piece, I thought of Peter Grimes in Brussels. You wondered, later, why such a fancy Te Deum was led by such a lavishly-costumed old cardinal in such a drab chapel.

Mario was painting large details of the Madonna (i.e. a single, giant “occhio” per fresco) on large chunks of plaster that had presumably fallen from the gaping hole, one per storey of his three-storey wooden scaffold. The directing wasn’t always in line with the drama (my idea of it at any rate). It seemed odd that Mario should lean jauntily on his scaffold, arms crossed, to banter sociably about his jealous girlfriend with an Angelotti on his last legs, and to me Tosca’s light-hearted flirtatiousness sat oddly beside her faith and jealousy. At this point, and right up to the execution scene, as at the Met, the supertitles had the audience in stitches – but you do see Tosca subtitled as a “melodramma eroi-comico” after all. The lady behind me taught me that a guffaw could actually be quite a high-pitched sound. The translation was modern and sometimes surprising: l’Attavanti was a “slut” and Tosca, having stabbed Scarpia, a “bitch”.

Right weather, wrong opera
Tosca was dressed, by the way, as Mimi, so eventually I forgot Peter Grimes and decided this was Tosca costumed as La Bohème – apparently the director was taking cues from the original play as to her humble origins. OK, by the time of the opera she’s supposed to be the ultimate diva but, well, we’re used to this kind of thing (and more) by now… And, the thing that has got some critics all worked up: in each act we had the ghost of Toscas past, an angelic child in white, holding out her arms: Tosca’s humble origins and lost innocence, emerging almost literally from the woodwork at times of high drama – and singing the shepherd’s song.

The act one and act three sets – act three being a an empty prison with that same gaping hole in the roof – were ugly, but the act two one was surprisingly good, once the gauzy curtain had been whisked away: not Scarpia’s sumptuous office, but a store-room piled high with grey crates and Roman sculptures (a reference, it seems, to wartime spoils). The action was fairly conventional, apart from the little white ghost arriving à point to remind Tosca to lay a rosary on the late Scarpia’s chest, though Tosca’s concert dress was hardly the spectacular John Singer Sargent number it could/should have been: she still looked like Mimi: this time Mimi dressed up for a night out at Momus’s café.

Once Tosca’s little ghost had brought down the final gauze and sung her shepherd’s song at the rear, gazing at the stars, act three took place, as I’ve already said twice, in a prison – a prison-cum-madhouse, as there were other mad-looking inmates bumbling about in shabby white uniforms. Hangman’s nooses hung through the by-now-familiar gaping hole, and Angelotti's body was brought in and strung up, spinning, according to Scarpia’s act two instructions (“Ebbene, lo si appenda morto alle forche!”). Once more, the action otherwise took place quite conventionally (to frequent peals of laughter: “Ma prima... ridi amor... prima sarai fucilato”, hohoho…), with a very creditable bang when the guns went off (compensating for the very unconvincing bourdon of St Peter’s, which sounded like someone banging a tin can with a spoon), making the novices in the audience jump, until Tosca stabbed herself in the neck with the same knife as she had used to dispose of Scarpia, and jumped off the ledge at the rear.

So… in the end, neither a Tosca to die for nor a particular failure, just better-than-often singing in a ho-hum-well-never-mind production. And off into the glacial night for a late dinner. Visitors to Chicago who find it hard to swallow dinner at tea-time may like to know that the highly-recommended (by a food-mad Buckeye in N. Carolina) Purple Pig, a few minutes’ taxi-ride away at 500 N. Michigan, is open till midnight.

Maestro Wenarto sings Recondite Harmony.

24 Jan 2015

VPO in Schubert and Tchaikowsky

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Tuesday January 20 2015

Conductor: Rafael Payare. Wiener Philharmoniker.

  • Schubert: Symphony n°8, D. 759, "Unfinished"
  • Tchaikovsky: Symphony n°4
  • (Encore) Eduard Strauss: Mit Chic (polka)

For the 2014-2015 season I decided we'd have a change from quitting second-rate performances of second-rate scores at the interval by dropping one of our usual opera subscriptions and buying a series of visiting (i.e. non-French) orchestras at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées.

On account of work (as anyone who goes to operas and concerts knows, these things have to be paid for), I missed the first of these wholly orchestral concerts: the St Petersburg Philharmonic in Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky (in this case, the 6th), magnificent I was told by the friends who were able to attend. This VPO concert was thus, for me, the first, and it was largely a disappointment: I had hoped to be thoroughly wowed, and wasn't.

Rafael Payare has been Dudamel's assistant but, counter-intuitively, is "aussi austère que son compatriote Gustavo Dudamel est flamboyant" ( "as austere as his compatriot Gustavo Dudamel is flamboyant"). Bent over and wearing a long coat, he has, leaving aside the afro hairdo, the dour demeanour of a Presbyterian minister. This should (apart from the hair) go down well in Ulster, where he now works. His conducting is meticulous and restrained, dry almost (using only limited vibrato), businesslike and brisk in spirit but not in tempo, avoiding showy effect and reining in the VPO, from whom he elicited neither very loud fortissimi nor very soft pianissimi.

Of course there were moments when the VPO's virtuosity shone through. The four-square togetherness of the brass. The soaring horn tuttis. The precision of the piccolo in those terrible twiddly bits in the scherzo, that brought an admiring smile to the face of the principal 'cellist. (There must be times when flautists wish they could strangle Tchaikovsky - think of the equally twiddly bits in the finale of the famous piano concerto.) The precision of the pizzicato in the whole of that scherzo. The orchestra's amazing ability to come to a sudden, absolute silence after a gigantic chord with cymbals.

But on a cold night, a restrained performance of Schubert's 8th is no way to warm things up (why don't orchestras do overtures any more?). This concert only really got going halfway through the first movement of the Tchaikovsky - and indeed, the end of that first movement drew an impressed whistle from someone that made the orchestra laugh, and a brief ripple of applause. So there was some excitement. But ultimately, the meticulousness and restraint (which incidentally had Tchaikovsky's frequent "handovers" from strings to woodwind to brass and back again sounding more clunky than thrilling) made for rather a dull evening.

In the end (literally), it was the (single) Viennese encore that brought the orchestra out of its strait-jacket. It was the most convincing part of the programme - short enough to leave us plenty of time for a warming lentil soup at the Turks'.

19 Jan 2015

Puccini - Turandot

Hungarian State Opera - Erkel Theatre, Budapest, Saturday January 17 2015 

Conductor: Gergely Kesselyák. Turandot: Szilvia Rálik. Altoum: István Róka. Timur: Kolos Kováts. Calaf: Atilla Kiss B. Liu: Gabriella Létay Kiss. Ping: Zoltán Kelemen. Pang: István Horváth. Pong: NC. Mandarin: Sándor Egri.

Per capita GDP in the US is about $53,000; in France, it's around $44,000; in Hungary, it's $13,000. Yet the Hungarian State Opera somehow manages to maintain two houses – its magnificent, gilded, neo-renaissance main one and the more modern (and larger) Erkel Theatre – offering a season of fully-staged operas with orchestra, chorus and, in many cases, soloists of international standard. The most expensive seats at the Erkel cost the equivalent of 12 euros (at the main house, that is doubled). The productions may be more or less sophisticated, but clearly this is a company that works hard to give its patrons the best it can with the funds available.

A real critic, paid to be impartially objective, may not take such things into account. But as my (French) neighbour put it on Saturday, when the Paris Opera, with its annual subsidy of 100 million euros, is capable of putting on a Seraglio with singers barely audible even at Garnier, and so dire to watch that despite the 190-euro ticket price we escaped at the first opportunity, in Budapest you're inclined to be indulgent.

Still, as Calaf, Atilla Kiss B. was more rough than ready. His voice was so uneven in the first act you sometimes weren't quite sure what he was doing: singing, moaning, groaning or what. It oddly brought to my mind one of those battered jalopies you sometimes see that have been patched up with doors, bonnet and boot lid of different colours. His “Sia benedetta!” was worrying: a bizarre, strangled sort of sound, so it was probably just as well that in the third and highest “Gli enigmi sono tre” he was covered by the soprano. Yet he somehow recovered for “Nessun Dorma”, scooping up into the higher notes from well below, and scored a huge hit with the local fans, the conductor having helped, much to my surprise, by choosing what you might call the “concert ending” of the aria, coming to a (thunderous) full stop that shamelessly called for applause.

Erkel Theatre
Gabriella Létay Kiss sang fairly loudly throughout, with quite a hard sound, so I missed some of the potential subtleties of the part. But remember, I'm contrasting this production favourably with one in Paris where we could barely hear the singers at all. 

Szilvia Rálik, when singing softly, i.e. after she'd gone completely to pieces (as Anna Russell said of Brünnhilde, for those who don't get the quote) in Alfano's ghastly final scenes, had a very beautiful voice with an interesting timbre. Not at all the Wagnerian kind of voice sometimes cast as Turandot. I suppose we can say she's a lirico-spinto, as before that, much of the time she was pushed to her absolute limit – but not beyond it. She can undeniably sing the part, indeed is singing it eight times this month. The question is whether she should. It would be a shame to harm such a fine instrument. (I hope to hear her later this year as Jenufa, which should be more comfortable for her.)

The chorus, sometimes on stage and sometimes dispersed around the house, sang very well (better than they acted). The orchestra too, only conductor Gergely Kesselyák tended to bash his way through the score, giving us real thrills in the loud bits that were meant to be such (the brass, by the way, were in a raised stage-side box and as such especially audible), but very little of the poetry or mystery that should also, quite often, be there.

The single set was made of lightweight, fretted structures in red and gold lacquer, with openwork staircases that could be moved about as required and roofed pavilions that could be raised above the rear terrace as required for the appearance, for example, of the emperor. The faintly rickety, dusty look quite faithfully recalled the Forbidden City in Beijing and there were definitely some visually effective moments. The soloists' costumes were colourful, in some cases visibly copied from actual Chinese theatre (Ping, Pang and Pong, white faced with red streaks, were wreathed in flags; the plebs, though, were all in simple black). Turandot had the usual, Medusa-like headgear, but also, in this case, a gold mask that Calaf ripped off towards the end (i.e. when he might equally have been ripping off her bodice).

That was one of the production's ideas, and a better one than the chorus's rapid semaphoric gestures, which they managed only fitfully, or Calaf's disappearance, once he'd decided to go for the riddle, through a brightly-lit moon door (or science-fiction Stargate) that opened and closed like James Bond's camera shutter. He made no attempt at acting but simply strutted around and took up poses, legs apart. I'm not sure his grim facial expression changed once and I must admit I wondered what Liu and Turandot saw in him (And if looks count, Turandot should really have married the Prince of Persia). Szilvia Rálik, on the contrary, threw herself into the role, so it wasn't surprising to see her turn up for dinner afterwards at the same restaurant as my little party: she must have been starving. I'd be quite happy to see her turn up at the Paris opera, in slightly less demanding roles.

Incidentally, there is noticeably no sign, in Budapest, of opera audiences growing old: everyone is there, mum and dad, grandma and granddad, the kids and courting couples, all dressed up to the nines and apparently enjoying every minute. Paris's Seraglio wasn't worth twelve times as much.

Maestro Wenarto sings "In questa reggia" and "Nessun Dorma".