27 Oct 2015

Schoenberg - Moses und Aron

ONP Bastille, Monday October 26 2015

Conductor: Philippe Jordan. Production: Romeo Castellucci. Moses: Thomas Johannes Mayer. Aron: John Graham-Hall. Ein junges Mädchen: Julie Davies. Eine Kranke: Catherine Wyn-Rogers. Ein junger Mann: Nicky Spence. Der Nackte Jüngling: Michael Pflumm. Ein Mann: Chae Wook Lim. Ein anderer Mann, Ephraimit: Christopher Purves. Ein priester: Ralf Lukas. Vier Nackte Jungfrauen: Julie Davies, Maren Favela, Valentina Kutzarova, Elena Suvorova. Drei Älteste: Shin Jae Kim, Olivier Ayault, Jian-Hong Zhao. Sechs Solostimmen: Béatrice Malleret, Isabelle Wnorowska-Pluchart, Marie-Cécile Chevassus, John Bernard, Chae Wook Lim, Julien Joguet. Sets, costumes and lighting: Romeo Castellucci. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris. Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine, Paris Opera children’s chorus.

Schoenberg by Schoenberg
I am ashamed to say that in all my long years I had never taken the time to listen to Moses und Aron. It was criminal negligence and I regret it now: last night I discovered a magnificent score, magnificently played and sung.

Six years ago, Nicolas Joel chose to open his directorship of the Paris Opera with Gounod’s Mireille in (I wrote at the time) “a staging that seemed (in the context of the change of management at the ONP, from Mortier to Joel) to be almost aggressively outdated and provincial.” Stéphane Lissner’s decision to open his tenure with Moses und Aron, originally to be directed by the late Patrice Chéreau and now, following Chéreau’s untimely death, by Romeo Castellucci, has been hailed hopefully by at least one newspaper critic as a sign of “the return of theatre to the Paris Opera.” Certainly, if this is a sign of what’s to come, in terms both of repertoire and of staging, things are looking up.

Romeo Castellucci’s production has gone down well with the press (and was, I read, only booed by a minority on the opening night, which is significant). If anything, while faithful, in its modern way (no palm trees or tea-towels on heads, thank goodness), to the text, it highlights the fretful, shifting, multi-layered ambiguities in Schoenberg’s thorny – and sometimes wordy - libretto. For a start, nearly all of act one is set more or less hazily - depending on how strongly lit - behind a gauze ("Milk of Magnesia," said a friend). The set is a seamless, open white space – infinitely white, therefore - with no props. At the start, a reel-to-reel tape recorder is lowered down in a spotlight, and the black tape begins to spill into Aron’s hands: the word of God, probably, that he is supposed to help Moses transmit to the people who, milling around, generously robed and hooded in white, bring to mind a flock of sheep.

Words are projected on the centre of the gauze: sometimes, slowly, words from the text; later, faster and faster successions of synonyms, or what seem to be just random nouns. The staff and snake appear as a large, 2001: A Space Odyssey spaceship also lowered down, sections of it rotating. Viscous, black liquid, oil or ink, spills from one end on to Moses’s hand: his leprosy.

In act two the tape and the ink, under Aron’s stewardship (and compromise) in Moses’s absence, gradually take over. Ink is poured from plastic jerrycans on the virgins, like a demonic anointment or baptism; extras, dressed in white, descend into a rectangular pool of ink and come out black; ink is smeared on floors and white flags and even poured on the back of the gigantic (one-and-a-half tonnes, we’re told) but placid Charolais bull led in to represent the Golden Calf. The orgy is merely hinted at (fortunately, as on-stage orgies are rarely convincing): at one point, the curved rear of the stage cracks open neatly at mid-height, leaving a horizontal slit through which slithering bodies can be seen; later, a single nude girl is lain before the bull while dancers in white, some of them handicapped, perform intricate gymnastics on the inky floor.

Aron is not only covered in ink and inky tape, like a gull in a slick, but eventually, against a majestic backdrop of snowy mountains (scaled by extras on ropes, like skyscraper window-cleaners), just before Moses comes down with the commandments, appears as a shaman in a costume of black tape (imitating raffia or straw) and a mask. During the ensuing argument, stage-hands clean the blackened stage with squeegee mops, leaving the word of the law in large letters embossed in the floor.

Moses (not this production. The Met?)
So there’s a series of undeniably striking images and the production is intriguing and coherent; but I wasn’t alone in growing, by the end, a bit fed up with all the baptisms in ink (“looks like 'Moses meets the giant squid'" said my neighbour) and I’d agree with those who have found the production just a bit too self-consciously aesthetic and a bit too static, pushing the work towards oratorio. A DVD would still be welcome, for both the images (sorry, Moses) and the music.

Thomas Johannes Mayer and John Graham-Hall were both excellent principals, though the latter, while commendably valiant, was, like many, nearly defeated by the scale of the Bastille. Secondary roles were carefully cast. But the triumph of the evening belonged to the chorus, orchestra, conductor and above all Schoenberg’s magnificent score, played with astonishing, crystalline clarity and legibility and sung with commitment and force.

The house was full and the audience applauded and cheered loudly and at length. So much for those who continue to claim that such “difficult” works are box-office poison, and that what opera audiences want is more Bellini, Verdi and Puccini. Let’s hope Stéphane Lissner will carry on as he has begun.

Maestro Wenarto sings Erwartung.

25 Oct 2015

Rossini, Mendelssohn and Mahler

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Saturday October 24 2015

Conductor: Yuri Temirkanov. Soprano: Camilla Tilling. St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra.
  • Rossini: Barber of Seville overture
  • Mendelssohn: Symphony N°4, Italian Symphnoy
  • Mahler: Symphony N°4.
Yuri Temirkanov
An evening of undemonstrative virtuosity. You might call Temirkanov an "anti-Bernstein". His gestures are sparing and his conducting seems (ars being celare artem) likeably literal and straightforward: no showiness (or showmanship), no lush wallowing, no violent extremes, no pulling the score about: when the score comes to an abrupt halt (e.g. the end of the second movement of the Mahler), no slowing down to smooth the abruptness out. The magnificent orchestra comes across, under his guidance, as quietly impressive: one vast, neat, gently humming machine, with not so much a sense of separate sections as one of a single, intricately interconnected mechanism. Never a note out of place, of course; not one quack from a horn or a trumpet. Everything just so, legible, fresh and clear - though presumably not to every Mahler-lover's taste, as I think they often enjoy a wallow or two, and it's precisely that sort of self-indulgence that has put me off Mahler since I was a teenager. Fortunately there was no self-indulgence here and the music's frequent grotesqueness was tempered.

Was it my imagination, because I knew where the performers came from, that I sometimes heard Tchaikovsky in the Rossini (the "handing over" of runs from section to section), Prokofiev (his Classical Symphony) in the Mendelssohn and Petruschka in the Mahler?

Camilla Tilling (standing in for Alice Crowe, off sick) was expressive and charming but perhaps a bit lightweight, though you might say her blending into the orchestral sound, rather than soaring above it, was right in a context where the notion of orchestral togetherness was so strong.

13 Oct 2015

Strauss - Ariadne auf Naxos

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Monday October 12 2015

Conductor: Kirill Petrenko. Ariadne/Prima Donna: Amber Wagner. Bacchus/Tenor: Jonas Kaufmann. Zerbinetta: Brenda Rae. Composer: Alice Coote. Music Master: Markus Eiche. Lackey: Christian Rieger. Brighella: Matthew Grills. Dancing Master: Kevin Conners. Harlequin: Elliot Madore. Major-Domo: Johannes Klama. Scaramuccio: Dean Power. Truffaldino: Tareq Nazmi. Officer: Petr Nekoranec. Wigmaker: John Carpenter. Naiad: Eri Nakamura. Dryad: Okka von der Damerau. Echo: Anna Virovlansky. Bayerisches Staatsorchester.

I hinted, in my report on Saturday’s Theodora, that it might have been better without the distractions of the bland production. I don’t know if we should call last night‘s Ariadne auf Naxos a concert performance or a semi-staged one. There were no sets or costumes and the orchestra was on-stage; but the singers, in evening dress, had no chairs or stands, and acted their parts out, all of them, with gusto. It was so successful, so wildly applauded it had me thinking back over the years to other successfully un-staged operas, the most memorable of all being a white-hot Elektra, in the same theatre in 1984, when Leonie Rysanek, Maureen Forrester and Ute Vinzing went at it hammer and tongs, bawling each other out in evening gowns, big hair and big jewels. That one is (or was) available on CD, by the way – and can be found online. The uncomfortable fact is – and of course I’m not the first to raise the point - that these “dramatic oratorio” opera performances are often more satisfactory than productions with sets and costumes and concepts you may or may not go along with. You can see and hear the singers better, and focus more tightly on the music and drama. Discuss.

Amber Wagner must be thanking Anja Harteros for dropping out of this gig. Not only did she get the chance to sing Ariadne opposite one of today’s best and best-looking tenors; she also scored a huge hit with the potentially awkward Parisians, who roared their approval. Ariadne sits, or at any rate, in the opera per se, starts low for sopranos. Not even the wonderful Lisa Della Casa sounds comfortable grubbing around down there. Amber Wagner has, fortunately, a really gorgeous lower range, with all the notes properly produced and in tune (including “Totenreich”) and a very, very nice husky, smoky undertone that she carries up with her almost to the very top (to be candid, I wondered if she's really a soprano and not a mezzo with a wide range). She makes good use of varied dynamics, and soars wonderfully when Strauss requires it – and of course, he often does. My neighbour was spellbound; and as I said, the audience roared. I would love to hear her in more Strauss. As Helena, for example (and preferably in the same kind of semi-staging, Helena being what it is).

And if she sang Helena, Brenda Rae would be more than welcome as Aithra. Such a relief to hear a Zerbinetta who has more body to her voice than a soubrette or nightingale (or pipsqueak). Brenda Rae’s sound is what’s often called “creamy” – for a lyric, coloratura soprano, relatively luscious. Yet she produces it naturally, almost as if speaking; and, like Ann Hallenberg in a different repertoire, rattling off Graun as if shelling peas, she makes it sound easy and looks as though she’s enjoying every second. Her “Großmächtige Prinzessin” brought the evening to a halt for some time.

Despite a cold, Jonas Kaufmann was the most convincing Bacchus I've ever had the good fortune to witness. He's often criticised for being too dark for his roles; but he was a very welcome change from the brighter kind of Heldentenor, whose purple-faced, near-apoplectic Bacchus tends to be nerve-racking: you never know when he will split or fluff a top note, or simply explode. A voice like Kaufmann's makes more sense of this famously thankless part. He forged through it, defeated by that cold only in the final bars, when his voice unfortunately caved in.

Alice Coote had my neighbour muttering "Quelle énergie, quelle énergie !" at the interval, and I knew exactly what he meant. The part is undeniably a gift to any mezzo with the energy and oomph to tackle it, and Coote, her voice perhaps brighter than the usual Composer, really threw herself into it, a thrilling performance with only one tiny and irrelevant accident.

Nearly all the casting was brilliant. I'll put in special mentions for Markus Eiche - really outstanding; Kevin Conners; and the wonderfully audible Okka von der Damerau, who, if not already a Valkyrie will surely soon become one (1). And the Bayerisches Staatsorchester under Petrenko was just the kind of orchestra I like: incisive and accurate, every detail (even in the trickiest meandering passages e.g. at the start of the Opera) legible, in place and in tune. Petrenko's tempi were brisk-ish throughout: no wallowing: the pulse under "Es gibt ein Reich" pulsated, it wasn't the bass-line to a dirge; and the three girls frolicked (vocally speaking) rather than lolling around, as they sometimes do. So we were out in time to get to the Turks' for dinner.

Here, Maestro Wenarto sings Zerbinetta.

(1) The IMG Artists website confirms this: "Other highlights this season include her debuts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra singing Bruckner's Te Deum under the baton of Riccardo Muti and with the Hong Kong Philharmonic singing Grimgerde in Wagner´s Die Walküre under Jaap van Zweden".

11 Oct 2015

Händel - Theodora

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Saturday October 10 2015

Conductor: William Christie. Production: Stephen Langridge. Choregraphy: Philippe Giraudeau. Sets and costumes: Alison Chitty. Lighting: Fabrice Kebour. Theodora: Katherine Watson. Irene: Stéphanie d’Oustrac. Didymus: Philippe Jaroussky. Septimius: Kresimir Spicer. Valens: Callum Thorpe. Les Arts Florissants.

An old friend of mine was too ill to go to the TCE for Theodora last night (hacking cough, like many in Paris at the moment - but people know Christie too well to dare hack their lungs out with him in the pit) and therefore asked for a report immediately after. As these e-mails or texts shot-off in the heat of the night while still abuzz from a show sum up one's main conclusions, I'll reproduce mine here:

Have you heard this Katherine Watson? If not you must try to get back to the TCE. I see she was a choral scholar at Trinity (1). That kind of background probably explains her degree of accomplishment and musicianship when yet so young. A very good partner to Jarrousky. This being the case, as you might expect, with all the unemphatic fluency of Les Arts Florissants in the hands of Christie himself, it was musically a great evening. The production, on the other hand, while harmless (it didn't prevent the singers projecting engagement and emotion) was bland and totally unoriginal. I say "harmless," but it's a shame it wasn't a more outstanding one: what an evening that would have made it!

So, yes, Katherine Watson struck me as remarkably accomplished and musical - a sweet soprano voice but with reserves of power, intelligently and sensitively used, taking me back to an earlier, "emerging HIP" British Händelian generation: the likes of Sheila Armstrong or Felicity Palmer. She's also pretty and a charismatic actress. I see (on her web site) that Hugh Canning (Sunday Times) has already said "Clearly one to watch". I had the same thought, and will look out for her in future. And when I say "good partner to Jarrousky," that's of course because he, too, is sweet-voiced, intelligent and sensitive. So their act two scenes together were what the French call a morceau d'anthologie - one for the annals.

The evening gave evidence, once more, that it's no use judging voices from recordings. I'd never been seduced by what I heard of Jaroussky so far, but discovered that, live, he has a very engaging, seductive timbre as well as an engaged and engaging presence on stage. His sometimes even languid phrasing, the purity of his held notes and sheer beauty of the top ones make up for the (common, I might say, among male altos) near-inaudibility of his lowest range. His voice is medium-to-low-powered (though not "incredibly small," as I'd been warned), hardly operatic, and with his unworldly demeanour and choirboy looks, he is anything but convincing as a wicked Roman soldier (though, in a drab uniform, he has something of the young Charles de Gaulle about him). But Theodora is not an opera after all, and he's perfectly convincing - and more: moving - as a Christian youth.

Callum Thorpe is another well-trained former chorister, in his case at Coventry Cathedral, with an undeniably striking bass voice, bright in timbre but cavernous beneath, and striking looks as well. He was, once or twice, a touch short-winded for long Händelian lines, taking breath mid-word, but that's a minor point: I'd be happy to hear him again any time. He made a youthful Valens, swamped, somewhat, in his uniform. Kresimir Spicer was quite a commanding Septimius, with an interesting timbre (though so grainy I did wonder if he had a cold coming on) put to real dramatic use, a wide dynamic range and great agility and accuracy. His diction was excellent. In this ruly context, Stéphanie d'Oustrac, with her relatively unruly voice, came across as the baroque equivalent of a character mezzo, a Händelian Azucena. Nothing wrong with that: it made a change.

Not much one can say about Christie and the orchestra and chorus of Les Arts Florissants. As you might expect, the music-making all evening was at the highest level - as I said above, totally yet unemphatically fluent. Händel's sublime late score was lovingly (at times really sublimely) phrased by Christie - more oratorio than dramatic: he did not play up the drama in, for example, the production's confrontation between Christians and Roman riot police.

Because, yes, riot police there were. As is so often the case these days, on the "baddies'" side, the leering men were got up in dinner jackets and the leering women in sparkling black ball gowns with extravagant hairdos and stilettos. The chorus, as usual, were not really cut out for convincing drunken revels and suggested high-class sex. The "goodies" were middle class lefties in beige linens, pale grey cotton and sensible, flat shoes, hugging each other (probably on the way to buy organic produce at inflated prices, it occurred to me) and sharing out bibles. No hint of sex. There were six handsome extras in riot gear and berets, fidgeting nervously with batons. The sets were sliding, ochre-coloured walls, against which rebels were (silently) shot, leaving blood splashes. There was, when required, a gold bust of the Emperor; there were even our old pals the iron bedsteads (though not the lone, unshaded light-bulb that usually hangs over them. A directorial oversight, no doubt). The on-stage martyrs' black-and white photos were posted up au fur et à mesure on the walls, eventually joined by what I think were real photos of real, modern-day martyrs. This was an attempt at seriousness, but the whole production was a bit too blandly, smoothly "luvvie" in overall style to convince.

Which was a pity. An outstanding production would have taken outstanding music-making to exceptional heights. Still, the singers projected their commitment in spite of the trivialising distractions, so I'm not complaining, and New York will get all the music without them. New Yorkers should go.

(1) Trinity College Cambridge.

28 Sep 2015

Adès - Powder Her Face

La Monnaie (at Halles de Schaerbeek), Brussels, Sunday September 27 2015.

Conductor: Alejo Pérez. Production: Mariusz Trelinski. Sets: Boris Kudlicka. Costumes: Marek Adamski. Lighting: Felice Ross. Video: Bartek Macias. Duchess: Allison Cook. Hotel Manager, Duke, Laundryman, Other guest: Peter Coleman-Wright. Electrician, Lounge Lizard, Waiter, Priest, Rubbernecker, Delivery boy: Leonardo Capalbo. Maid, Confidante, Waitress, Mistress, Rubbernecker, Society journalist: Kerstin Avemo. La Monnaie orchestra.

Thomas Adès
Brussels’ royal opera house is shut for renovation, so this season is peripatetic. On account of work, I missed what was apparently a fun (and more) production of L'Elisir d'Amore at the Cirque Royal two weeks back, being in Muscat instead. Powder Her Face took us to a former market hall in Schaerbeek, up near the Nord station, where the streets are lined with Turkish grocers’, cafés, restaurants and cake shops. So for a change, on an unusually sunny day for Brussels, we had Urfa kebabı, İskender and künefe for lunch before the show.

It’s always hard to form an opinion of a production of a work you don’t know. But having read the libretto (with its stage directions) and reviews of other productions, it seems to me Trelinski’s relentlessly dark-and-sleek-and-shiny-but-sordid approach, fiddling with the action, actually diminished the work’s dramatic potential. I would imagine UK productions, at least, would have been a bit more “Shakespearean”, with irony, even fun, up front making the tragic end more tragic. In Trelinksi’s version, the Duchess, more a Lulu-like victim than a former deb of the year, staggers around in a dazed, drugged or drunken stupor from start to finish, slashing her wrists in the bath at the end (rather than walking off with the gramophone, as suggested in the stage directions); any humour is kind-of-forced upon the reluctant director by the text and score.

A hotel bedroom
As to fiddling with the action… Unless I was more than usually inattentive, the 1936 13-scene “pantomime” – surely quite an important bit of business? - was simply ditched: the Maid as Waitress sang her extraordinary “Fancy Aria” in front of a dazzling tinsel curtain. The famous fellatio scene was here set in a Hopper-esque American petrol (i.e. “gas”) station, with a small diner to the left and petrol pumps to the right (not vice-versa as in Hopper's painting), and the Duchess drove on in a little red MG – a distinctly British choice in the this distinctly un-British setting. This made her attempts to call for room service, from a pay-phone on the diner wall, senseless and looked to me like directorial self-indulgence. The fellation was soon sex, first frontal, then anal.

For the record… The old market hall, totally blacked out, offered plenty of space for the action. The chamber orchestra was up at the back, behind us. On the left was the long, fancily-papered wall of a hotel corridor, with wall lights and numbered doors. It was used for black-and-white projections of pre-war footage evoking, e.g. the Duchess’s first marriage. On the right, a nod to Amsterdam’s red-light district, was (sometimes) the graffiti-marked façade of what was presumably some sort of sex club, with muscular young men, bare-chested in leather and masks, writhing in strobe lights behind the unwashed windows. Twice the Duchess entered under the “Open” neon sign.

The main stage, with a revolving ring bringing on and taking off props, was glossy black marble with a central inlay. This black gloss, the overall design scheme and the Duchess’s costumes and demeanour reminded me of the boring “glam-trash” perfume commercials that come on TV around Christmas (intentionally? Her scent – Joy - is mentioned in the text, and in this production she slashes her veins with the broken bottle). It opened with the Duchess’s bathroom, but was at other times the Savoy lobby, with revolving doors; an art deco living room with a giant satin couch; a bedroom for the court scene, with the Duke/Judge emerging form under the covers and the Rubberneckers watching events on TV, eating crisps from a decidedly un-50s plastic bag; that Hopper-esque petrol station; or hidden by the aforementioned tinsel curtain. The Maid and Electrician, at the end, were replaced by child tango dancers in Fred-and-Ginger outfits.

Musically the afternoon was excellent. Perhaps the orchestra could have been a bit more incisive; perhaps the scenes could have been driven by with a touch more impetus; but perhaps that was just me. With such a strong cast, it would be nitpicking to single out minor shortcomings that might anyway have been figments of my drowsy, Sunday-afternoon imagination. So though it may look like a cop-out, I'll just say a big bravo to them all for both singing and acting, and hope to see some or all of them again, in new repertoire or old.

7 Jul 2015

Cilea - Adriana Lecouvreur

ONP Bastille, Monday July 6 2015

Conductor: Daniel Oren. Production: David McVicar. Sets: Charles Edwards. Costumes: Brigitte Reiffenstuel. Lighting: Adam Silverman. Choreography: Andrew George. Maurizio: Marcelo Alvarez. Il Principe di Bouillon: Wojtek Smilek. L’Abate di Chazeuil : Raúl Giménez. Michonnet: Alessandro Corbelli. Quinault : Alexandre Duhamel. Poisson : Carlo Bosi. Adriana Lecouvreur : Angela Gheorghiu. La Principessa di Bouillon : Luciana D’intino. Madamigella Jouvenot : Mariangela Sicilia. Madamigella Dangeville: Carol Garcia. Paris Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

Having slept on it, I’ve decided it was actually quite nice to end the season with an “old-fashioned” evening of Italian opera: stand-and-deliver singing by a strong cast in period costumes and sets and no regie soul-searching. I wouldn’t want this sort of thing very often – especially not Adriana: once every 20 years is enough – but the audience evidently liked it: unusually, for Paris, half of them actually stood to clap at the end and were still standing, clapping, when the house lights went up. Perhaps this is the sort of staging London critics like, too, rather than the William Tell that has so upset them recently.

David McVicar’s production has been around; Paris is its last stop. Like traditional Met ones, it relies almost entirely on “lavish” sets and costumes for impact, not acting or ideas. Perhaps Adriana is regie-proof and a traditional approach is wise; but as a friend pointed out, it’s a work with weaknesses that can do with some help. The one hint at a concept is “all Adriana’s world’s a stage”: the set is dominated (and the stage almost filled) by a revolving wooden theatre we see from the back, the wings or the front as the production requires. In act one we see it from behind, then from the wings. In act two its neo-classical front, set at an angle, with pastel-coloured columns and flying figures trumpeting round a coat of arms in the pediment, serves as the villa by the Seine. In act three, we have it full-frontal for the ballet at the Hôtel de Bouillon. In act four, we are behind it again, and a stove has appeared for Adriana to throw her poisoned violets into.

As a full-sized, working theatre is a very large object, it tends to cramp to the front a whole flea-market of period props: screens, sofas, bandy-legged desks, chairs, candelabras, and drapery matching the brocaded, Watteau-inspired costumes that somehow remain solidly, prosaically un-French in cut and cloth (I assume they were not made in the Paris Opera’s workshops). To either side are the high, shabby back-sides of what we assume are painted sets. These could, I thought, usefully have been omitted: the theatre-within-a-theatre might have been more effective and would certainly have given the cast and chorus more breathing-space revolving alone on an empty stage. Instead, these side shutters add to the clutter and restriction of movement (though they do give the Princess her “secret exit” in act two).

This kind of staging - elaborate but undemanding melodrama - suited the singers.

Alvarez, not a born actor, seemed totally at ease in this environment and sang (even acted) better than ever. He got the loudest applause. Luciana d’Intino was clearly also more comfortable here than wielding a pistol as Amneris in Py’s over-the-top Aida. She’s a very solid trouper, with not-too-chesty chest notes and glorious, grainy top ones that remind me of Shirley Verrett, which is saying something. As Michonnet, Alessandro Corbelli was spot-on both vocally and dramatically, not overdoing the “character” side of the part that's more marked in those of Il Principe and L'Abate, impeccably carried through by Wojtek Smilek and Raúl Giménez.

This was only the second time I had seen Angela Gheorghiu on stage, the first having been something like 15 years ago. She seems to be the target of a lot of criticism, even mockery, on websites. Is this because of her behaviour (e.g., but not only, cancellations) and pronouncements? Like the others mentioned above, she is no doubt better cast in a production of this kind than a regie one, her acting skills being what they are – although here I thought she did a very creditable job of dying, poisoned, at the end. Her voice, understandably, no longer sounds as young as she tends to act, and the highest note in the score was strained. It is also, for the Bastille, too small: even on the fourth row, at times I could see her lips moving but hear nothing. But at other times, while her lips barely parted at all, let alone moved, she gave us some gorgeous singing of a kind we rarely hear these days – presumably one of the reasons she’s quite often called an “old-fashioned diva”: "honey and cream," said my neighbour, liquid and smooth. And I heard none of the intonation problems people now complain of. So she scored a real hit, alongside Alvarez and the rest of the cast: applause for Alvarez, at curtain-calls, was loudest, but applause for “Poveri Fiori” was, during the opera, longest; unusually long by today’s standards.

The orchestra was at its very best. Regarding Daniel Oren’s conducting, I can’t put it better than Avant-Scène Opéra: the score was “conduite avec son engagement coutumier par un Daniel Oren généreux d’élans fougueux mais aussi de nuances impalpables, et attentif au plateau en toute circonstance". His concentration and commitment were visible from where I was sitting, and the impalpable quality at its most striking in the prelude to act IV : I’ve rarely heard such beguiling pianissimi at the Bastille. Or anywhere else, come to think of it, since Tristan in Vienna.

Maestro Wenarto sings "Io son l'umile ancella".

31 May 2015

Messiaen - Turangalîla-Symphonie

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Wednesday May 27 2015

Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen. Piano: Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Ondes Martenot: Valérie Hartmann-Claverie. Philharmonia Orchestra. 

The Philharmonia's Turangalîla under Salonen on Wednesday evening came across, from where I was sitting, as a massive display of scorching orchestral fire-power: the brass and percussion blasting away like heavy artillery at the rear, the dry English woodwind's lighter artillery and the searing, steely siren sounds of the strings in the middle, and at the front, celesta and glockenspiel scattering gleaming, ear-piercing shrapnel, the wailing shells of the ondes Martenot, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard manning a one-man machine gun battery, shooting off salvos of bullets with deadly accuracy and taking no prisoners. Tempi were relatively brisk, Messiaen's sudden silences were deafeningly abrupt, the overall effect was more martial than loving, and apart from brief moments of respite, it was either loud, very loud, or just brutally loud: no half measures, it seemed... from where I was sitting.

Turangalila in Valencia
That, I think, was the problem. The TCE has the mad idea that top-category seats include the front rows. Not quite so mad for opera, when the orchestra is in a pit, but here I found myself in the middle of row two, staring at the string section's (impeccable) socks and the underbelly of the Steinway and perfectly placed to hear the excellent Aimard's strenuous grunting and groaning (I note you can also hear it on the BBC's broadcast of the same concert in London), especially during Jardin du sommeil d'amour. I had a very nice nod and smile from the lady at the celesta above me to the left. From such a position, of course the balance is totally skewed: the piano, celesta and glockenspiel dominate, and at moments of goodness knows how many fs, you just can't tell what's going on behind. I heard, from someone on row eleven, that it was an amazingly accurate, detailed performance - the audience behind me went wild - but, as Gershwin might have said, not for me. I'd bought this concert deliberately to hear the Philharmonia "on display" but was disappointed simply to be deafened by a maelstrom of sheer sound.

I already have my tickets for the TCE's next season. I've decided, therefore, to check the rows and, if necessary, ask for different seats.

Classical Iconoclast reviewed the London concert (which also included some Debussy) in detail.

To see Turangalila in Valencia, click here.
To see a video of an unforgettable night of Turangalila, click here.