5 Apr 2016

Berlioz - Béatrice et Bénédict

Palais de la Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday April 3 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9 Feb 2016

Verdi - Il Trovatore

ONP Bastille, Monday February 8 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 Feb 2016

Cole Porter - Kiss Me Kate

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, Thursday February 4 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 Jan 2016

Rossini - Olga Peretyatko

Théâtre des Champs Eysées, Paris, Monday January 11 2016

Conductor and fortepiano: Ottavio Dantone. Soprano: Olga Peretyatko. Accademia Bizantina.
  • Il viaggio a Reims: “Partir, oh Ciel! Desio… Grazie vi rendo o Dei”.
  • Il Signor Bruschino: Sinfonia.
  • Il viaggio a Reims: “All’ombra amena”. 
  • Il barbiere di Siviglia: Temporale (storm).
  • Il turco in Italia: “I vostri cenci vi mando.. Squallida veste e bruna… L’infelice, che opprime sventura”.
  • Semiramide : “Bel raggio lusinghier”.
  • Tancredi: Sinfonia.
  • Tancredi: “Di mia vita infelice… No, che il morir”.
  • Grand’overtura obbligata a contrabasso.
  • Matilde di Shabran: “Ami alfine… Tacea la tromba altera”.
I believe Olga Peretyatko has had quite a tough schedule touring this Rossini recital. I have also read that she's in the habit of introducing the numbers herself, but was advised against it (possibly by the TCE management?) in Paris, a detail she announced, using a microphone, at the start of the evening. Perhaps fatigue, perhaps the destabilising change in routine, perhaps the cold and damp, perhaps just stage fright at facing a new audience - perhaps any or all of these affected the first half of the programme, as what we heard sounded highly competent, carefully crafted and studiously musical, but too well-behaved (what the French call "policed"), and neither particularly individual nor obviously exceptional - taking no risks. La Comtesse de Folleville lacked folly, as the soprano tried too hard to act. My neighbour went so far as to complain he was very nearly bored.

But eventually, after the interval, it was as if a different person and different singer emerged (in a different dress: red instead of fuchsia. I say "fuchsia," not "pink," just to show I know how to spell it), more at ease, more natural, less arch - and with clearer diction. From Tancredi onwards we were on a roll: warm, silkily golden timbre, a fuller voice than usual, these days, in Rossini, beautiful phrasing, impeccable staccato flourishes, full-voiced high notes... Olga Peretyatko is not a "stratospheric" coloratura soprano, so she's sparing with the top notes and doesn't chuck them in, unwritten, for free - she ends her arias on the low note, not the high one; but when she sings them, they are indeed sung: worked at (I don't think they come easily), full-voiced, phrased even - and in tune.

In other words, in the second half of this recital it finally became clear why she's now so famous - and attracts fans from abroad carrying bouquets of roses marked "Viva Rossini, Viva Olga". Her encore was "Una voce poco fa". And as it was the only one she'd brought, and the Parisians plugged away at their rhythmic clapping, refusing to let her go, she had to sing it twice.

The Accademia Bizantina (an odd name, but they come from Ravenna) is a period-instrument orchestra. They, too, seemed to take a while to warm up: there were some strange sounds from the woodwinds at the back and odd tuning from the 'cellos on the right. Our old friend the lone booer, up in the gods, even had it in for the conductor, for a while. But, like Olga P., in the second half of the programme, they were up to cruising speed, and gave us Rossini with bite and crunch and sparks, sudden, startling ffs, and the whiff of the field that valveless horns bring, even a degree of Sturm und Drang, often bringing to mind Haydn, and sometimes Gluck and Schubert.

Very interesting, and I was glad to find out, by the end, what the fuss was about. Once again, all was well that ended well.

21 Dec 2015

Humperdinck - Hänsel und Gretel

La Monnaie at Bozar, Brussels, Sunday December 20 2015

Conductor: Lothar Koenigs. Live projections: Manual Cinema. Conductor of children’s chorus: Denis Menier. Peter: Dietrich Henschel. Gertrud: Natascha Petrinsky. Hänsel: Gaëlle Arquez. Gretel: Talia Or. Die Knusperhexe: Georg Nigl. Sandmännchen and Taumännchen: Ilse Eerens. La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra. La Monnaie Children’s Choir, La Maîtrise. 

As I’ve already said since this season started, the main Brussels house is undergoing renovation, so La Monnaie is peripatetic. I should imagine management realised that Hänsel und Gretel is hardly “oratorio” fare and therefore offered it to us “semi-staged”, or so they put it, at Bozar, an art-déco arts complex up the hill.

Bozar’s concert hall has a warm, enveloping, “sherry commercial” kind of acoustics, so La Monnaie’s orchestra sounded impressively lush and loud there. Anything but post-modern and/or transparently analytical, Lothar Koenigs’ conducting seemed to me Stokovskian “old school”, alternating emphatically, in stately measure, between majestic solemnity and solemn majesty (i.e. think "cathedral" not "laboratory"), bringing a great deal of nobility to the score’s many beaux moments but, at the mauvais quart d’heure the end seems to me to be, bringing to mind a particularly galumphing performance of The Ride of the Valkyrie or even – well, a bit – a Bavarian Biergarten.

The children’s chorus and soloists were very good . Gaëlle Arquez has quite a hard-edged mezzo voice that carries but is perhaps somewhat monochrome; Talia Or’s soprano is maybe more rounded and interesting, but was one notch undersized for the large hall and orchestra. Natasha Petrinsky came sailing in with great Wagnerian promise, got up, so it seemed, as Morticia Addams: long black hair with high, spiky stiletto heels and a slender black dress, slit to thigh-level, with a black-spangled top. In the event, some of her notes were more Wagnerian than others (i.e. it was uneven in its gimlet piercing-power) but there was nothing to complain about – at all.

Natasha Petrinsky
Georg Nigl likes to sing Monteverdi´s Orfeo, Papageno, and Wozzeck (perhaps he doesn’t, on the other hand, like the letter “e’). His (naturally) playing up the Witch as a character part made any assessment of his normal voice hopeless, but he screamed and cackled very well and got the loudest applause of all at the end, which I suppose the Witch usually does. Ilse Eerens sang very sweetly. But the star of the cast was really the always-excellent Dietrich Henschel, musical as ever and showing no sign of the passing of time – the only one, by the way, to leave the score in the dressing room and, hands free, act the part on stage.

The others, in the absence of music stands, clung to theirs, and when thrust into the oven Nigl just strolled offstage, which is why I typed “semi-staged” in inverted commas.

There were, however, live (though there seemed no point in that as it wasn’t perceptible) shadow projections of pointy-nosed characters by a Chicago-based outfit called Manual Cinema, reminiscent in part of vintage Czech cartoons, in part of the dreary, wanly-coloured kind of graphics the English used to like (John Piper, Edward Ardizzone…) and in part of Le Petit Prince, France’s answer to Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The effect was no doubt intended to be naively charming and please the kids. It was what you might call “gentil,” but as an old friend of mine used to say, “La gentillesse n’est pas une vertu” or, as I recently read on a French website: “‘Mais bon, il est gentil’ (...) En gros, il ou elle est con.”

In sum, some very fine music-making and well-meaning animation but, as my neighbour remarked on the way out: “Oui, c’est beau. Mais on s’en fout.”

Here, Maestro Wenarto plays the Witch.

Il giardino di Armida has also covered this concert and unearthed this video clip.