25 Oct 2016

Saint-Saëns - Samson et Dalila

ONP Bastille, Monday October 24 2016

Conductor: Philippe Jordan. Production: Damiano Michieletto. Sets: Paolo Fantin. Costumes: Carla Teti. Lighting: Alessandro Carletti. Dalila: Anita Rachvelishvili. Samson: Aleksandrs Antonenko. Le Grand Prêtre de Dagon: Egils Silins. Abimélech: Nicolas Testé. Un vieillard hébreu: Nicolas Cavallier. Un Messager philistin: John Bernard. Premier Philistin: Luca Sannai. Deuxième Philistin: Jian-Hong Zhao. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

Just as I was happy to hear Verdi’s Requiem again last week, I was happy to hear Samson et Dalila again this Monday. Saint-Saëns is unfashionable and underrated, but I like him a lot, and wonder not just why I’ve never seen Samson staged before, but why we don’t get at least some of his other operas.

Musically, it was a rare treat. After what I briefly thought was a rather ponderous, Brahmsian start, bringing to mind the Requiem (Brahms’s, not Verdi’s) and raising initial fears, Philippe Jordan crafted a surprisingly intimate, lovingly shaped and sculpted performance, a model of the clarity and elegance the French see as their peculiar talent. The orchestra was on its best behaviour and the chorus was at its most impressive, as you might expect in this work.

So the fundamentals were excellent. In addition, our two principals were surely among the best you could hope to hear (though I did read criticism of their “un-French” style - too technical a point for me: I was just happy to have them, true French style or not). Aleksandrs Antonenko has a powerful, dramatic tenor voice. He made up in vocal heft for relatively uncharismatic stage presence in the first two acts. Then, after bringing down the act 2 curtain with a ringing “Trahison!”, in act 3 he acted up a storm, vocally (including some of those howling, Russian-style “wounded bear” sounds) and physically.

Anita Rachvelishvili is a special case. I don’t know if there’s a name for the phenomenon (perhaps I should call it a gift) that allows some (very few) singers to reach every corner of a large house while singing very softly. Pavarotti could do it. I mentioned above the intimacy of Philippe Jordan’s conducting. Rachvelishvili has a big, richly-timbred voice - a great bronze bell - but astonishingly sang “Printemps qui commence” in the softest, most delicate, tender and intimate way throughout – with even the lowest notes clearly audible and in tune: in other words, conjuring up boudoir-intimacy in the black hole of the Bastille. Later in the evening, of course, she let rip impressively - as well as being dramatically committed. In other words, she was fantastic. My fear now is that the Met (where she was already Carmen to Antonenko’s Don José in 2014; my guess is Samson et D. suits them both better) will sink its claws into her and we’ll never see her here again. Let’s hope she hates flying.

Not much to say about other cast members, except that it was a shame Nicolas Cavallier wasn't around at the end to take a bow. I'd have clapped loudly.

The production wasn’t, I thoguht, up to the same standard as the music. Having heard it was updated, I was surprised to hear a colleague who saw it before me say it was “conventional,” but I now see what he meant: the familiar “repressive regime” approach, with extras in black jumpsuits, baseball caps and sunglasses waving machine guns and a dictator (in this case, the High Priest) in a suit with a pistol playing Russian roulette with his captives - Hebrews in drab, dirty, wartime rags.

The set was basically the same throughout. The sides and rear of the stage were faced with square, slate-grey slabs. A wide, Mies-van-der-Rohe style “aquarium”, with creamy net curtains all round, was raised on piers, with a tunnel beneath, in act 1, so the Philistines could keep an eye on the Hebrews. In act 2, it was on the ground and contained Delila’s bedroom, furnished with sleek, peachy-coloured art-deco armchairs on a powder blue carpet, a bed and an oval, full-length mirror. In act 3 it was raised again, but the furniture had gone bling-bling for the bacchanalia: ornate gilt frames and crimson crushed velvet… and the facing slabs had turned gold.

The key directorial ideas were plausible enough: Samson so smitten by Delila he cuts his own hair off and hands it to her; Delila so out of sympathy with the Philistines and full of remorse she douses the place and herself with petrol before handing Samson a lighter. In the updated setting, I wondered how the director would deal with the ballets (supposing he didn’t just give up and ask for them to be ditched, as some do). In act 1, devilish, gold painted dancers performed a vision in which Samson foresaw his eyes gouged out. In act 3, as the ballet music struck up, racks of gaudy oriental costumes were bustled in and the High Priest’s guests stepped out of their evening dresses and dinner suits to change for a fancy-dress orgy. This was quite clever. The act 1 devils were back among the guests, drinking from bottles, whipping and spitting on Samson. Throughout the work, Delila had expressed doubt and misgivings at her role. At the end, as I said, she took a jerry-can, doused the place and herself with petrol and handed Samson a lighter. The ensuing explosion was spectacular, with gold plaques popping off the wall (unfortunately but I suppose unintentionally recalling the problems the Bastille has had with its square facing slabs, held back by nets from falling on passers-by) and dazzling yellow lights shining through in our faces.

As I say, there were some clever ideas. But to me the first two acts, being so like so many productions we see these days, lacked specific “personality” – they could have been from any modern version of almost any opera. And while my companions were quite happy with act 3, I usually find simulated lasciviousness, same-sex groping and jiving to the score ultimately unconvincing. So, “conventional” was about right. To be honest, like the old ladies we chatted to at the interval, I think I might have been quite happy to have a “period” staging for a change.

Wenarto: a different version of "Printemps qui commence".

21 Oct 2016

Verdi - Requiem

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Thursday October 20 2016

Conductor: Jérémie Rhorer. Vannina Santoni, soprano. Alisa Kolosova mezzo-soprano. Jean-François Borras, tenor. Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, bass. Orchestre National de France. Chœur de Radio France. 
  • Verdi: Requiem.
These days, when you’re surprised to find smaller voices than usual cast in a familiar work, you wonder if you’re being ignorant. Is the conductor telling you they’re more like the voices the composer would have worked with – i.e. that his choice is “HIP”? Or is it just that he “likes slimmer voices,” as I was told last night by someone who has worked with Jérémie Rhorer?

Vannina Santoni’s voice is undeniably slim, bringing to mind Sabine Devieilhe, though less elegant and with a touch of that "crooning" sound that reminds me of pop songs and TV shows like Star Academy and The Voice. Her tuning is good and she had a fair stab at persuading us that her modest volume was a matter of deliberate artistry rather than means. And as I’ve said before, I admire the pluck of any singer brave enough to stand in front of a thousand people to leap (or slide) up to that fearsome last “requiem”. But it was nevertheless a skinny thread of a note and I wonder where she plans to sing Violetta – not at the Bastille, presumably.

Neither she nor Alisa Kolosova, a slightly more conventional bit of casting, is able to sustain a vocal line the way we’re used to (or might like to be used to) in Verdi, and both are short-winded: as far as I know, “quidquid” is one word. Kolosova had a tendency to run ahead of the orchestra, and both together lost the orchestra at one point and finished their phrase well behind – Santoni with a hand cupped round her ear, straining to hear what was going on. An unprofessional moment, considering this was at the TCE and with the National, but Rhorer’s podium was set slightly behind the singers, who were closer to the edge of the stage, and he wasn’t able to bend back acrobatically over the guard rail all the time to give the proper cues. Still, somebody should have sorted that out during rehearsals.

The men fared better, though they also came across as half a size too small with the Orchestre National behind. Jean-François Borras in particular did, as my neighbour said, “de très belles choses” and had better diction than anyone else. But all four soloists reminded us how much more fragile and exposed singers are on the stage apron in this kind of work than in the "rough and tumble" of an opera.

The Radio France chorus was excellent as ever, really “speaking” the words, and the National was on form - though without a few cracked trumpet notes (in the “Tuba mirum”) it wouldn’t be the National, would it? Rhorer played Verdi as Verdi, not blurred, soupy Mahler: textured blocks of quite edgy sound, quite a lot of detail, reasonable, regular tempi, no wild fortississimi. I noted his gestures are often “rectangular”, as if keeping things neat and tidy. The opening pianissimo was very quiet and tender and seemed promising. But by the end, my feeling was that, while orderly (and while I was certainly glad to hear the work again), this was a Requiem without much of a vision and, with the “slimmer” voices, short on drama. “Terne” was the French word I had in mind. I.e. dull.

2 Oct 2016

Cavalli - Eliogabalo

ONP Garnier, Paris, Thursday September 29 2016

Conductor: Leonardo García Alarcón. Production: Thomas Jolly. Choreography: Maud Le Pladec. Eliogabalo: Franco Fagioli. Alessandro Cesare: Paul Groves. Flavia Gemmira: Nadine Sierra. Giuliano Gordio: Valer Sabadus. Anicia Eritea: Elin Rombo. Atilia Macrina: Mariana Flores. Zotico: Matthew Newlin. Lenia: Emiliano Gonzalez Toro. Nerbulone, Tiferne: Scott Conner. Sets: Thibaut Fack. Costumes: Gareth Pugh. Lighting: Antoine Travert. Cappella Mediterranea. Namur Chamber Choir.

This Eliogabalo at Garnier offers a prime example of how different people's perceptions may be of the same production, as a quick read through the published reviews demonstrates.

It was Thomas Jolly's first opera. Perhaps those most impressed are too young to find it an unexpected throwback to the 80s, not having lived through the decade. I found (most of) it gloomy, cold and corny. The stage was cavernous black and dominated most of the time by plain black constructions serving various functions, all with steep (black) steps that continued down into the pit. The lighting was chilly and bleak: criss-crossing "pop-concert" beams of white light and, at the rear, a sort of crown or sun of orange squares. The costumes were stiff and plain, in cool , plain colours: grey, blue, violet. The conical stiffness of the guards' outfits made them look like Lego figures (one of the professional critics had, I saw, exactly the same thought). Eliogabalo's were equally stiff and conical, but garnished with large Statue-of-Liberty haloes and lavishy decorated with glittering gold. With his wicked-witch shoes, he looked like a pantomime dame who had hit it rich (or, as a friend e-mailed me: "... like a frumpy bordello madam with pretensions. The wig suggested Hilda Ogden with strassy curlers") and the overall aesthetic brought to mind drag night in a tacky provincial gay club many years ago, with young male dancers, naked apart from white loincloths and short, curly white wigs, striking languidly statuesque poses on the sides.

I've seen the acting praised; to my eyes, it was limited to teetering precariously up and down the stairs in those awkward shoes and stiff dresses, or striking hammy poses - some camp, some "manly" - on them. Only part three came close, as far as I'm concerned, to a production worthy of a major house like Garnier, with Eliogabalo bathing in spectacular gold in front of a row of square columns and a dimly-lit giant bust (watched over, of course, by those languid, near-naked youths), and at last some action taking place when his severed head finally tumbled down the steps into the orchestra. ELIOGABALO spelled out in blood-spattered capitals on the steps was, however, a final touch of déjà-vu.

The cast was strong, though the fact that the Bastille is big doesn't make Garnier small and ideally-suited to baroque opera: it is still, on the contrary, large, so even the biggest "baroque" voices may struggle to make proper impact there. In this case, they projected best when there was a set behind to offer support. Franco Fagioli was most impressive in his rich and grainy, expressive middle range, not in virtuoso runs at the top, where his projection dropped considerably. His diction, however, is non-existent, and to my surprise his impact was purely vocal: he projected no perceptible physical personality.

Not the production - unfortunately
Nadine Sierra and Elin Rombo made a fine pair, one silvery and silky, the other slightly more creamy and golden, both phrasing nicely. Of the two, Nadine Sierra was audibly more subtle and sophisticated, but had she not been there, Elin Rombo would still have shone. Mariana Flores, however, was relatively raw and crude, probably in part because while singing loudly, she seemed determined at all costs to eschew vibrato.

Paul Groves (got up to look like some stock bearded biblical figure from The Life Of Brian) also phrased beautifully, as might be expected, but his vocal type sometimes seemed out of place in Cavalli and he occasionally sounded uncomfortable, especially at the top. The character roles of Zotico and Lenia were adequately sung and played (though with no orginality in the corny acting they were given to do) by character tenors. The barely audible (apart from the odd hoot) Valer Sabadus should not be cast in opera at all, let alone in a house the size of Garnier.

The overall sound of the (large) Capella Mediterranea was dominated by bowed strings. The plucked instruments were seen (long necks bristling like masts in a harbour) but rarely actually heard and use of percussion such as castanets was sparing. The result, to my ear, was monochrome (verging on monotonous), though I thought one published description of Cavalli's score as a "robinet d'eau tiède" (a stream of tepid water) was more amusing than fair. Still, three hours of it, plus two 20-minute intervals, made for a long evening when the production was so unexciting. As we left, the three of us agreed that act three would have done...

27 Sep 2016

Verdi - Macbeth

Palais de la Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday September 25 2016.

Conductor: Paolo Carignani. Production: Olivier Fredj. Graphics: Jean Lecointre. Sets: Olivier Fredj, Gaspard Pinta, Massimo Troncanetti. Costumes: Frédéric Llinares. Lighting: Christophe Forey. Choreography: Dominique Boivin. Macbeth: Scott Hendricks. Banco: Carlo Colombara. Lady Macbeth: Béatrice Uria-Monzon. Dama di Lady Macbeth: Lies Vandewege. Macduff: Andrew Richards. Malcolm: Julian Hubbard. Medico, Servo, Araldo: Justin Hopkins. Sicario: Gerard Lavalle. La Monnaie Orchestra and Chorus.

I've often wondered why opera-houses change their productions so often. Anyone in Paris for as long as I've been will have lost count of successive versions of The Magic Flute at the Opéra National, where there have already been three different productions even of Saint-François d'Assise... Just six years ago, La Monnaie offered us Macbeth directed by Warlikowski, surely quite a big name. Yet this season, though the company is supposed to be hard-up, we have a new staging by Olivier Fredj, his first opera. Perhaps it's down to the renovation delays and the limitations of that dreaded tent again. I don't know*.

A read through the programme notes shows Fredj wasn't short of ideas. His "backbone" themes are sleep and dreams, extending these to the Freudian interpretation of dreams, nightmares, surrealism, sleep deprivation and its effects (e.g. hallucinations: Macbeth, in terror, was sleep-deprived, hence Banquo's ghost and the apparitions) and of course sleepwalking. He brought in a surrealist artist as graphic designer to splice together black-and-white pictures to create bizarre hybrids or symmetrical images recalling Rorschach tests. He had gloomy grey videos made of people with sleep disorders writhing or flailing about in narrow hospital beds. He even, if I understood correctly, visited a specialist medical center in Paris to gen up on the latest research into the pathology of sleep, and had a doctor there write an essay on it and its links to Shakespeare's plays.

But he was also prompted by "All the world's a stage" sometimes to have the chorus sitting in a "mirror" theatre at the rear, facing the audience and sandwiching the action between: merely players. He noted the emphasis on descendants, i.e. babies, represented by prams of the kind you no longer see, except in photos of royal families. And he thinks - again, if I understood correctly, of which there is of course no guarantee whatsoever - that to a modern audience under the influence of cinema, the place for strange things to happen is hotels, and so set the work in one.

There were, I think, too many strands. At least one, the videos of people in bed, having started the show, never appeared again. Same with the "Rorschach" projections. Overall, the effect was bitty. And if you read the programme, with its nightmares and Freud and surrealism and so on  before seeing the result you might think you were in for a grimly cerebral reading. But it turned out to be an entertaining show, if not necessarily clearly relevant to the play after all.

It opened, then, with those unfortunate patients churning in their beds and various projections on gauzes. The main, modular, set, was of white walls with mouldings, on which a variety of wallpapers, quilting (that changed cleverly to owls' eyes when the supernatural showed up), pointed motifs representing the dagger or other effects could be projected. As, when we first met them, Macbeth and his wife were running an art deco hotel - the Glamis Castle Country House Hotel and Spa ***** or something like that - there was sometimes a hotel desk to one side, a large double door with stained glass panels at the rear, and lots of sleek, nimble hotel staff in neat black-and-white dashing primly and efficiently about.

The hotel staff
But of course, first we had the witches, and here, representing the weird and wonderful supernatural, we got in fact, more or less, the "Time Warp" crowd from the Rocky Horror Picture Show, much cross-dressed, in extravagant black-and-white couture outfits (smarter and richer than Rocky's guests, with an Austin Powers touch: jabots and frilly cuffs for the "men," and Cruella-de-Vil styles for the "girls") and outlandish hair: more fun than frightening. Hotel staff and witches (any borderline between them was blurred) were played by dancers; the chorus sang either in the wings or at the rear or, most effectively, in a marvellous "Patria oppressa" in their street clothes dotted around the tent among the audience - this was probably the best moment all afternoon: it was truly thrilling to be surrounded by the singing, not just sitting facing it.

Banquo was murdered rather comically with fridge doors, kitchen knives and a frying pan by the "zany"staff in the blue-tiled hotel kitchen, wheeled on in preparation for the banquet. Equally comically, Banquo's ghost was in this case Banquo's head on a platter, revealed by a waiter lifting a large cloche from a dinner trolley. Lady M., who started out - when she was still running the hotel - in wide, plain black trousers with a cigarette holder in her hand, was by now in gleaming gold lamé with a fancy red wig, and Macbeth's grey suit with its plain grey kilt over the trousers was now golden. The kitchen became the scene for the witches' next caperings and the apparitions scene was more like a surreal and ghostly fashion show, with towering, white-faced models wreathed in smoke. As events turned even sourer for him, Macbeth, armed for the battle by the witches/staff with a feather duster and a saucepan lid, like a cousin of Ubu Roi, overturned the prams, presumably (we couldn't actually see) damaging the contents. At the end, the reluctant Malcolm was shoved forward by the chorus (seated at the rear again): neither he, nor the equally reluctant Macbeth earlier, had come to power by their own free will.

Macbeth and Lady M.
I think it will be evident by now that I felt there were too many threads not quite weaving coherently together. Not sure, either, that the appearance of Banquo's ghost should have been a gag, or that there was any real reason why the opera should be taking place in a whacky, upscale, art deco Fawlty Towers, (other than that the production team liked art deco), or that we should find Macbeth "entertaining", which might be thought to trivialise it. But entertaining's what it was.

In any case, whatever the production's faults or however flawed - or worse - the work is said to be, it's one of my favourites, so I was just plain glad to have Macbeth again and not inclined to be picky.

As I've often said before, this kind of Verdi is exactly the sort of music La Monnaie's orchestra is best at, and Carignani is the kind of brisk, no-messing-about conductor I like. The chorus was splendid, above all when singing their stirring "Patria oppressa" among the audience.

The men, rather than subtle, were kind of rough-and-ready: "no better than they ought to be," a late Scottish friend of mine might have said. Hendricks and Colombara were both in the same roles in the (darker, by far) Warlikowski production six years ago. The former's voice has thickened and grown "uglier" - nothing necessarily wrong with that, in this kind of part - and the latter's is stiffer and harder and sort of ungainly. For some reason - something in the timbre, something a bit pinched at the top? - Andrew Richards sounded Welsh to me, but I looked him up and he appears to be American. On Sunday, he seemed to be at his limit but he has impressed the critics.

I'm not sure what to say about Béatrice Uria-Monzon as Lady Macbeth other than that she made the best of an odd job. People complain that J. Kaufmann's "baritonal" tenor isn't right for all his roles, but as far as I know nobody actually claims he's a baritone, not a tenor at all. BUM, as she's known in France, is undeniably a mezzo, and not of the Shirley Verrett kind. Her dark and round and soft and plummy sound transforms the role: this is a different, possibly disconcerting, Lady Macbeth. She brought it off, but had to keep the top notes short. "Una Macchia" was her best moment.

I almost feel sorry for the management at La Monnaie, forced by further delays in renovating the Théâtre Royal to change the season's schedule to fit their not-so-temporary plastic hangar on waste ground by the canal. Perhaps it was a sign of gratitude to their much-mucked-about subscribers that I found myself in better seats there this time, closer to the action and with better sound. But as it was often hard to place the singing, I wondered if, to improve the acoustics, they had now installed some subtle amplification. Then, when Malcolm passed close by us with the chorus members asembling for "Patria Oppressa", my neighbour leaned to me and whispered "mike" - he claimed he had seen one by Malcolm's left ear.

Planes roared overhead, as usual, at strategic moments, and a much slower one, one with propellors, buzzed over seemingly endlessly just after the battle, forcing Macbeth to emote alone on the floor for quite some time before going into his final monologue (the ending chosen for this production). But this Sunday there was something new: a loud rushing sound that I thought might be a wind machine or a side drum roll brought in for atmosphere by the director. But no: it was rain.

*I later read, on, "La tentation est grande de rapprocher cette mise en scène, qui laisse d’abord sceptique avant de susciter l’intérêt, avec celle de Krzysztof Warlikowski, en 2010, qui devait à l’origine être reprise." So the original plan was to revive the Warlikowski.

As usual, Maestro Wenarto nails it. But Il giardino di Armida left at the interval!

11 Sep 2016

Staatskapelle Berlin under Barenboim: Mozart and Bruckner

La Philharmonie, Paris, Thursday September 8 2016

Conductor and piano soloist: Daniel Barenboim. Staatskapelle Berlin.
  • Mozart, piano concerto n°26
  • Bruckner, symphony n°6
I know nothing about acoustics and will only try to describe what I thought I heard from my single seat the other night. But scouting round the web for better-informed opinions about Paris's Philharmonie, I came a cross a blog called From The Sound Up, by an acoustical and architectural designer working in New York, and an article there entitled Why I can’t review the Philharmonie de Paris but why it’s worth trying anyway: a meditation on variability, which gives the impression that the sound in the new hall is especially varied. “Variation in the sound field is the topic of this post,” he writes, “because it is all I could think about after my experience in the brand-new (or, more accurately, yet-to-be-finished) Philharmonie de Paris. During a single concert, I experienced what might have been the worst concert hall acoustics of the tour, followed by what might have been the best.”

I was in a category 2 seat and found myself on the steeply-raked 5th-floor balcony that faces the orchestra, which a friend calls the "wall of death". For the category (and price: 90 euros) this was surprisingly far from the square, central platform. With reverberation I've seen put variously at 2.3 and 2.6 seconds, the overall sound was, to me, "churchy" (my neighbour said "swimming pool" but I'd say that was an exaggeration; at the end of the concert he claimed they should pull the place down and start again from scratch).

On account of the distance, it was as if I were sitting somewhere in the nave and the orchestra were playing in font of the altar. The overall sound is warm and roundish and to some extent enveloping, and during quiet passages it's certainly nicely detailed, but when the "high" instruments - the flutes and above all the violins - play loudly, the reverberation kicks in to give a soupy sort of "Mantovani" effect, obscuring the detail. I think this is what some people mean when they say that there is a "halo" around the sound. Lower instruments, cellos and basses especially, fare much, much better.

The other issue, again at least from where I sat, was that when a score goes abruptly from very loud to very soft, which happens quite often in Bruckner, for the duration of the echo there's confusion, obscuring what follows.

Overall, I would prefer a drier sound. To my ear, that reverb. too often blurs details, and after an hour or so, because of the excess distance, I started to feel out of things and switch off. One day I will have to go back and sit nearer, to see if the effect is more inclusive – but as I said above, it looks, from what I've read here and there, as if it will be very hard to decide where exactly to buy a seat, the implication being not that sections of the hall are different, but that each individual seat – and even your position sitting in it – is!

A detail: by one of those odd quirks of acoustics, during the concerto, the sound of the piano hammers was distinctly audible, tap-tap-tapping like a disembodied woodpecker, about three rows in front of me, to the left.

The programme was oddly lop-sided: a 25-minute concerto followed by a 20-minute interval, and then the symphony. Why orchestras no longer play overtures baffles me. Will we never hear them again?

The concerto was Mozart exactly as I no longer want to hear him, by a sleek modern orchestra and on a gleaming piano the size of a ship with plummy sound and a dynamic range Mozart never heard. Barenboim certainly exploited the dynamic range very skilfully, but his performance sometimes seemed almost cavalier, rushing through the runs (what the French call “soaping” them) with fistsful of wrong notes. Not a great showing, though the audience seemed to like it. I'm told Barenboim is impatient about rehearsing and his concerto performances can therefore be “seat-of-the-pants” affairs. Also that he takes too much on for his age. Maybe so.

The symphony was much better. The Berlin orchestra is wonderfully business-like and forthright (and would have done a great job in Egmont, if only we'd been allowed an overture), and Barenboim's approach, though very carefully crafted, handling Bruckner's tiered build-ups with admirable control and bringing delicate reverence to his “religioso” modulations, is relatively straightforward: more punchy than schmaltzy, not too much fiddle-arsing around with the tempi (mostly moderate to brisk), limited foot-dragging… It was lovely to hear the 6th played with such un-histrionic skill. To pick out a couple of details, it was a great evening for the principal oboe in the second movement, not such a great one for the principal horn, who fluffed quite a lot of notes. Tutti were impressively together, as usual with good German orchestras, and threw up great chunks of sound. But as I mentioned above, it all sounded a little too far off: I remained outside the music, not involved in it, and towards the end found myself thinking of dinner…

For those wanting more about the acoustics, here's a link to the blog entry.

12 Aug 2016

Leoncavallo - I Pagliacci

Apollo(n) Theatre, Ermoupoli, Syros, Friday July 15 2016

Conductor: Giovanni Pacor. Production: Detlef Soelter. Canio: Piero Giuliacci. Nedda: Eilana Lappalainen. Tonio: Massimiliano Fichera. Beppe: Ioannis Kavouras. Silvio: Joseph Lim. Pan-European Philharmonia. Greek Opera Studio. Ile de France children’s chorus.

In the middle of the 19th century, Ermoupoli, capital of Syros in the Cyclades, was a thriving shipbuilding and trading town and a more important port than Piraeus, rich enough to build a small Italian-style, horseshoe-shaped opera house. The Apollo (sometimes Apollon) Theatre was renovated at the turn of the present century, and I found myself invited to Syros for my birthday and to I Pagliacci there the next day.

It was a far better experience than anyone might have feared, a more-than-just-creditable performance, and quite a lot of fun. It was also an appreciable chance to get some idea of what opera in small and relatively remote houses was like back then. The intimacy with the singers (especially when the production, as here, invades the auditorium) makes it a very different experience from opera in gigantic places like the Met or the Bastille, and means soloists with voices that might not survive in New York or Paris can be cast with some success in Syros.

Though I suppose it isn’t logical, I know I’m inclined to be more indulgent and easily-pleased with small companies making the effort to stage operas in cash-strapped venues. My host evidently isn’t, complaining that the small stage was unnecessarily cluttered and that Bob Wilson (no less) would have done a better job by leaving more to the imagination. He was right, though, that the little stage-within-a-stage with its strings of light-bulbs and clown backdrop would have been enough; Nedda’s caravan, on the left, and the painted Italian village square all round, could have been dispensed with and would have left more room for the lively action.

It was a modern-dress production – among other things, no doubt saving money on costumes, though Canio had the apropriate baggy check clown pants and a trailing tailcoat in patches of black and grey and Nedda, once got up as Colombina, was in a red-spotted dress with yellow pigtails and exaggerated makeup. The Prologue was sung in the centre aisle and the chorus started out in the tiered stage-side boxes, waving flags (including the Finnish one, as the ambassador was, it was announced formally by someone from the Town Hall, present) and eventually entered through the house. The acting was sometimes, no doubt deliberately, melodramatic and the chorus movements were no worse (including the kids) than anywhere else in such cramped surroundings.

Massimiliano Fichera was both solid and enthusiastic and Joseph Lim was, if staid (not that there’s much you can do with Silvio), solid too: a pair of sound, well-trained young voices. Piero Giuliacci was a much better Canio than you might have anticipated in the circumstances. And the orchestra was perfectly competent and was even equipped with a proper set of tubular bells. Only Eilana Lappalainen was over the top (no, I didn’t say over the hill…): her voice was loud and squally, making Nedda’s awful bird aria even more chaotic than usual, and she’s a bit mature to be prancing round like a teenage ingénue in yellow pigtails, though she undeniably threw herself into it with near abandon. That didn’t, however, ruin the evening. I enjoyed my birthday treat.

Wenarto stages the tragic finale here.

2 Jul 2016

Sondheim - Sweeney Todd

Palais de la Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday June 26 2016

Conductor: Bassem Akiki. Production: James Brining. Sets & costumes: Colin Richmond. Lighting: Chris Davey. Sweeney Todd: Scott Hendricks. Anthony Hope: Finnur Bjarnason. Beggar Woman: Natascha Petrinsky. Mrs. Lovett: Carole Wilson. Judge Turpin: Andrew Schroeder. Beadle Bamford: Christopher Gillett. Johanna Barker: Hendrickje Van Kerckhove. Tobias Ragg: George Ure. Pirelli: Paul Charles Clarke. Jonas Fogg: Matthew Zadow. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie.

From La Monnaie's web-site:

'The production of Frankenstein - the new creation that La Monnaie commissioned from the American composer Mark Grey, based on an idea by Alex Ollé of La Fura dels Baus - is postponed to a later date. Instead of Frankenstein, we will close this season with another first for La Monnaie, which is also “out of the box”: namely Sweeney Todd.'

The Châtelet in Paris has been putting on Sondheim pieces for the past three of four years, but, having heard bits on the radio or web, I have steered clear. The Brussels matinée subscription is, however, a set menu: you take what you are given (though in this case not what was originally announced). So along we went.

Not entirely "out-of-the box", as the economical but effective sets used shipping containers: on the right, a couple of them, stacked, on the left, another, raised on scaffolding, between them an opening with an industrial curtain of vertical plastic strips. The boxes opened up to show rooms in Turpin's house or, on the left, the barber shop. The production was in that vaguely modern dress – not 50s, not 60s, not quite today either – we see so often. The acting, it seemed to me, was stage-school style – borderline hammy, trying hard but not quite succeeding. The dialogues and singing were all miked, so it was impossible to see who was saying or singing what, or judge of the performance. The text sounded like A. C. Douglas struggling to be humorous, and fake Cockney accents only made it worse. And, finally, the music confirmed what I suspected: I can't bear Sondheim. It's nails on slate to my ears ("Send in the clowns": aaaaaargh....). I know I'm in a minority, but I'm not alone: after mentioning it to a friend on Gmail, I received this:

"I LOATHE Sondheim. I presume you have seen this ('Waiting for the tune to begin...')"

So as soon as we could escape the stifling, noisy tent La Monnaie is currently using (and risks using for the whole 2016-2017 season), we did.