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 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 blue, grey, 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 symbolized 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.

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.

17 Apr 2015

VPO in Brahms

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Wednesday April 15 2015

Conductor: Christoph Eschenbach. Soloist: Leonidas Kavakos

  • Violin Concerto
  • Symphony N°1
The last time I heard the VPO in the same theatre I was disappointed. This Brahms concert made up for that in full.

Leonidas Kavakos' playing was so (deceptively) "simple" sounding that it was only as the concerto progressed that I realised what an outstanding performance I was actually hearing. It comes across as effortlessly straightforward, which of course it can't be: a great deal of skill and effort and talent must have gone and go into achieving such undemonstrative, un-flashy virtuosity, such fluency in pianissimo passages played without vibrato, note-perfect. The result reminded me of Ana-Caterina Antonacci's singing - in her case, so conversational she makes you feels as if she's taking you into her confidence: you almost forget she's singing, not just talking to you. With Kavakos, it was like having a pleasant conversation with an intelligent friend, one whose intelligence is worn lightly - smiling too, sometimes, as he moved around his little space on stage - at the first violons beside him, at the cellos behind, the conductor and the audience as he played.

Engaging, agreeable playing without ostentation and overall a great performance, supported in the same vein, as you might expect, by Eschenbach and the orchestra. Perhaps this is "modern" Brahms playing, not HIP but influenced by HIP: not schmaltzy or, worse still, slushy; lean (in sentiment, not sound) rather than lush.

The same might be said of the symphony. It was a massive display of string force, great square blocks of sustained string power, neoclassical rather than late or post-romantic, making the structure of the score (not always what you might at first think: Brahms plays tricks) easy to "read".

I remember, back when I was still in an orchestra, thinking what a great play Brahms' First was for the strings: everybody gets the same meaty stuff to play, forwards or backwards, one way up or the other. This impression, on Wednesday, of emphasis on the string sections may well have come in part from my being seated near the front of the stalls: in terms of balance that meant all the wind and percussion were hidden from view. But Eschenbach seemed to look mainly to his first violins to lead, nevertheless taking care to pass phrases, visibly, with a gesture of the hand, from strings to winds and back. Of course, the woodwind and brass playing was glorious when to the fore: those famous horn and flute calls at the start of the last movement for example: not only the strings could sustain!

I have enough experience to know, however fantastic the performance has been, better than to clap a string soloist too loud and long, but not everyone does, so after the concerto we got the inevitable unaccompanied Bach encores: "Ça casse l'ambiance," said my neighbour: it puts the mockers on things. But after the symphony we got a very jaunty performance of the first Hungarian Dance that had the players themselves grinning, so that's what people were whistling, or trying to whistle, on the Métro platforms afterwards.

14 Apr 2015

Dusapin - Penthesilea

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday April 12 2015

Conductor: Franck Ollu. Production: Pierre Audi. Sets: Berlinde De Bruyckere. Lighting: Jean Kalman. Costumes: Wojciech Dziedzic. Video: Mirjam Devriendt. Electro-acoustic emplacement: Thierry Coduys. Penthesilea: Natascha Petrinsky. Prothoe: Marisol Montalvo. Achilles: Georg Nigl. Odysseus: Werner Van Mechelen. Oberpriesterin: Eve-Maud Hubeaux. Bote: Wiard Witholt. Botin: Yaroslava Kozina. Amazone: Marta Beretta. La Monnaie Orchestra & Chorus.

Before seeing this opera, I had no idea of the gruesome tale (as retold by Kleist) of Penthesilea. Here are some indications from the web…

First, very simply, from

Penthesilea is about an Amazon queen who falls in love with the Greek hero Achilles but later goes mad with passion and kills him”.

Wikipedia hints at the gruesomeness:

Penthesilea (1808) is a tragedy by the German playwright Heinrich von Kleist about the mythological Amazon queen, Penthesilea, described as an exploration of sexual frenzy. Goethe rejected it as ‘unplayable’”.

The Reader's Encyclopedia of World Drama reveals more – we learn that Penthesilea carries out a…

“… savage attack on him with dogs, elephants, and all the weapons of war imaginable. After killing him and drinking his blood, she is brought to her senses and is horrified by the cruelty of her passion. Penthesilea now repents her deed and coldly takes her own life”.

La Monnaie’s own website links the story (pessimistically, but in interviews Dusapin admittedly doesn’t seem to have a very sunny disposition) to the modern world:

“It was Heinrich von Kleist (1808) who brought the subject into the modern era. In his version, Achilles does not kill Penthesilea, but vice versa: in a moment of tragic madness she tears apart the one she loves with her teeth. Pascal Dusapin’s Penthesilea is his seventh opera; he includes in his score a quote from Christa Wolf: ‘Thus begins the modern era and it is not beautiful.’”

From the above it will be clear that the story is a violent, “antique” tragedy of the Elektra or Medea sort. Dusapin has successfully created a dark, powerfully dramatic work, gripping and harrowing, centred on a strong female (anti-)heroine, with a leading role as dominant and taxing for the singer as Medea or Elektra. The work has been greeted as a “triumphant masterpiece”, and a triumph, too, for Natascha Petrinsky. She is in theory a mezzo, but a high one, with a bright, forceful sound and – usually, though less so in this grim environment, in the jeans, boots and tee-shirt of a modern-day amazon – a glamorous presence. She has often sung in Brussels – as Flora, Geschwitz, Varvara… As the latter, already it seemed to me the “roles were reversed”, her voice sounding brighter than Evelyn Herlitzius’ Katja. In Elektra, I noted “We both preferred the glamorous Klytemnestra (Natascha Petrinsky)” to Nadine Secunde’s Elektra and Annalena Persson’s Chrysothemis. Her Penthesilea was such a fearsomely committed performance that it tended to overshadow the rest of the undeniably strong and equally committed cast, Marisol Montalvo in particular. 

This Brussels premiere has scored a hit - proving once more that opera is not in fact dead and that opera audiences are not the brainless, Bohème-obsessed conservatives they’re often accused of being - despite both conductor and directors standing in for others.

The production, originally to be directed by Katie Mitchell, was as dark as the plot. It combined unsettlingly ambiguous video projections – of the squelchier kind of nature close-up, of water (or blood?) dripping slowly and darkly off hair or fur (human or animal?), of the flaying and salting of skins (whose?) – with caked-looking gridirons on a dubiously stained floor, that were eventually piled up with pelts as in a tannery (I know a bit about this: I worked in one as a student) and sometimes large aluminium shapes that might have been aircraft parts or the housings of jet engines. The men were long-haired, in flowing, black, sleeveless coats, black gloves and boots: a kind of war-torn Rick Owens look that’s a touch too trendy for me. The women wore brown and beige. Individual and group movements were well-directed, but in reality all eyes were inevitably glued to Natascha Petrinsky’s wild Penthesilea.

Dusapin’s score is of course, in the circumstances, not what you might call easy listening; but it is by no means intractable. The scoring is fairly conventional, but with emphasis on the lower register: contrabassoons, tubas, double basses and, if I heard right, a bass flute. So, as you might expect, there’s quite of lot of “amiable tapeworm” meandering, but leavened by the use of a solo harp and a cimbalom or dulcimer, oddly evocative of the ancient world; and of course, although Dusapin doesn’t go in for banks of exotic percussion, breaking out at times into considerable violence. The chorus, commenting on the action from time to time, was haunting. Some music and sound effects (e.g. dripping) were transmitted round the house through speakers in the stage-side boxes and attached to the balconies. Under Franck Ollu, replacing Ludovic Morlot, who has resigned (thankfully, some might say), the orchestra did a great job.

This premiere is, I think, a real event, and it’s likely that Penthesilea will do the rounds rather as Eötvös’s Tri Sestry has done, entering, as much as any contemporary opera can be said to do so, the repertory. If it comes out on video, it will be well worth buying.

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".