9 Dec 2014

Mozart - Don Giovanni

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday December 7 2014

Conductor: Ludovic Morlot. Production: Krzysztof Warlikowski. Sets & Costumes: Malgorzata Szczesniak. Lighting: Felice Ross. Video: Denis Guéguin. Don Giovanni: Jean-Sébastien Bou. Il Commendatore: Sir Willard White. Donna Anna: Barbara Hannigan. Don Ottavio: Topi Lehtipuu. Donna Elvira: Rinat Shaham. Leporello: Andreas Wolf. Masetto: Jean-Luc Ballestra. Zerlina: Julie Mathevet. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie.

Mozart (again)
You can't win them all. After a series of successful productions (in my view at any rate: his Makropoulos Affair is one of the Bastille’s best ever), I suppose Krzysztof Warlikowski was bound to come a cropper at some stage, and that was exactly how French daily Le Figaro chose to head its review "Don Giovanni : Warlikowski se casse les dents", i.e. Warlikowski comes a cropper. You expect something novel, thoughtful and interesting from him, but here he disappointed by dishing up what any lesser "regie" director might have (and so often has) dished up – mirthlessly cynical high life/hi jinx with embarrassing simulated sex. Cunnilingus coloratura is by now a real cliché, yet Donna Anna sang “Non mi dir” with Don Ottavio’s head up her coat.

Visually it was glamorous and slickly done, with faultlessly chic costumes all round (“the Don wears Prada”, you might say), the tightest, shortest possible dresses and highest possible heels for Donna Anna, and superb coloured lighting – far better done, in its genre, than Andrea Breth’s Traviata in the same house two years’ back, so I wondered why the Brussels audience booed so loudly this time. Exasperation, probably, at being served more of much the same (and they may not have liked Donna Anna shooting Ottavio in the head at the end).

The acting was, nevertheless, outstanding and there were, still, some striking theatrical images - the Don’s death in particular, on his own butcher’s block (the dinner he prepared was raw meat only) - provided you managed not to be distracted by black dancers flailing around and foaming at the mouth, references, so it seemed, to the “Hottentot Venus” or (as the Commander came back from the dead) voodoo trances.

In the sleek circumstances, you couldn’t help suspecting casting was based on looks (especially figure) first, voice later. The suitably slender, blue-suited Topi Lehtipuu sang stylishly enough and Sir Willard White was of course up to his part - more so than Bou, stretched to his limit. Barbara Hannigan’s (amazingly long-legged) performance was oddly mannered, reminding me of Maria Ewing at her most flesh-creepingly irritating. Rinat Shaham, after a rocky start, had her moments: in an otherwise stonily unresponsive afternoon, only she and Hannigan got any applause, both after their big act-two numbers. The rest of the cast were more or less out of their depth; and when Warlikowski had everyone singing from boxes at the sides, no-one was properly audible. I wondered if it was Ludovic Morlot’s own idea to drag the score (recits especially) out to three-and-a-half hours, but imagine the director also had a hand in it, for dramatic (and somehow un-Mozartian) effect. The orchestra was lacklustre indeed and even, at times, sounded out of tune. That surely must have been an illusion, due to my own tin ear?

An eminent musicologist has suggested to me that people are now simply fed up with “regie” productions (leading me to fear a return to “period practice” along the stilted, dust-blurred lines of Cadmus et Hermione at the Opéra Comique or Hippolyte et Aricie at Garnier). Of course, I can understand people being fed up with bad ones; but to me, Warlikowski has always been very good, when not out-and-out excellent. I hope, therefore, that this Don G. is the exception that will prove the rule and that the next time I see one of his shows, he will be back on more imaginative form.

Maestro Wenarto shows how it should be done.

28 Oct 2014

Mozart - Die Entführung aus dem Serail

ONP Garnier, Monday October 27 2014

Conductor: Philippe Jordan. Production: Zabou Breitman. Sets: Jean-Marc Stehlé. Costumes: Arielle Chanty. Choreography: Sophie Tellier. Lighting: André Diot. Selim: Jürgen Maurer. Konstanze: Erin Morley. Blonde: Anna Prohaska. Belmonte: Bernard Richter. Pedrillo: Paul Schweinester. Osmin: Lars Woldt. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

Believe it or not, I was actually in Istanbul, having lunch in the grounds of Topkapi Palace* (in Turkish, "Topkapı Sarayı" hence "Serail" in Mozart's title), when I got a text message from Paris: "Entführung is dismal! Opéra de Limoges style." As it happens (this will seem far-fetched, but truth is supposed to be stranger than fiction) the person opposite me during lunch was from Limoges, and took umbrage at the implied slur on her home town. She was with me at last night's performance of the Entführung in question, at the Palais Garnier (in Turkish, "Garnier Sarayı", naturally – unless some phonetically-schooled Turks write it “Gağniye”). Giving her verdict at the interval, she hadn't forgotten that message: "Tell him (a) up yours and (b) even in Limoges they'd never dare..." - meaning never dare put on such a dire show. Wondering what to write about it, I was lost for words. Fortunately the more resourceful "Opera Cake" has since reminded me that "moronic" and "moron" exist: this was a moronic production that took us all for morons.

By what process, I have often wondered, do people who have never directed an opera before get invited to do it? Of course, you have to start somewhere; and of course, sometimes it's a success: I remember being surprised when Warlikowski, who admitted he hadn’t a clue about opera, was asked, but he has since become my favourite director. As usual, I had to look Zabou Breitman up. She has acted in lots of films, and the very person who sent me the text message tells me she is genuinely talented at that. I'll take his word for it. Her production was indescribably cringe-making, like the very worst of school plays, with wobbly painted sets and shaky crepe-paper vegetation, a brainless oriental fantasy worthy of a tacky provincial Christmas panto, with acting at least as badly directed and far fewer laughs; indeed no laughs at all. Benny Hill would have done a better job. My neighbour swore blonde’s litter was copied from a Belgian cartoon strip called Marsupilami.

Blonde's litter
I felt sorry for the extras, looking forlorn as they slouched around with nothing to do, and the belly dancers: yes, there were even belly dancers. The spoof "silent film" images projected on the curtain during the overture showed promise that was not fulfilled. I imagine they were intended to prepare us for a naive treatment of the oriental theme. But if the action was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, I'm afraid it just looked incompetently directed; and if the use of exclusively Moorish designs (including some djellabas among the rag-bag of corny costumes) in a supposedly Ottoman setting was meant to be an elaborate joke, it fell flat: it came across as sheer ignorance.

The Paris Opera website rattles on regardless about the serious messages behind the plot: “... humanist values […] the virtues of tolerance and fidelity in love, the celebration of human goodness [which] prefigure those developed in The Magic Flute and La Clemenza di Tito, [Mozart's] final operatic masterpieces. A metaphor for the combat between Liberty and all forms of absolutism, Belmonte’s quest to deliver Konstanze from Selim’s yoke resounded throughout Europe, inspired at that time by the spirit of the Enlightenment. ‘All our efforts to express the essence of things came to nothing in the aftermath of Mozart’s appearance. Die Entführung towered above us all,’ wrote Goethe, overwhelmed by the composer’s nobleness of spirit and radiant optimism.” Excusez du peu. Well, there was no sign of anything of that sort in last night’s shipwreck.

A future opera director
Whatever their intrinsic merits - and Bernhard Richter, for one, has undeniably displayed those, as Atys, for example, in 2011 - the mostly young singers were not up to their parts in a space of Garnier's size (Garnier may be smaller than the Bastille but it still has 2,000 seats) and over a modern orchestra. Konstanze's dramatic "Welcher Wechsel herrscht in meiner Seele" was met last night with excruciating silence. And not everyone was as audible as Erin Morley: my elderly neighbour (on the fourth row) wondered aloud if her hearing was going as, so she claimed, some of the soloists were inaudible. The impression I got, though admittedly I may just have been projecting my own dismay on the cast, was that everyone involved realized that this was one giant turkey and had lost heart, for which they can't be blamed.

The only brief pleasure I got personally from the undertaking was listening to the excellent quartet of soloists ordered out of the pit by Selim himself to accompany "Martern aller Arten" on stage. "Bravi" to them. If the evening improved in any way after the interval, I can't say: we were off to an early dinner - mercimek çorbası, köfte, sütlaç at the Turks'.

*At Karakol, between the entrance gate and St Irene's church. This is an excellent restaurant, open-air in fine weather with views down to the Sea of Marmara, and it's a shame it doesn't open in the evening as excellent restaurants are hard to find at dinner time over in the old city.

Maestro Wenarto sings "Konstanze! dich wiederzusehen!

27 Oct 2014

Nicholas Lens - Shell Shock

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday October 26 2014

Conductor: Koen Kessels. Choreography and production: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Sets and videos: Eugenio Szwarcer. Costumes: Khanh Le Thanh. Lighting: Willy Cessa. Soprano: Claron McFadden. Mezzo-soprano: Sara Fulgoni. Counter-tenor: Gerald Thompson. Tenor: Ed Lyon. Bass: Mark S. Doss. Dance: Eastman - Aimilios Arapoglou, Damien Jalet, Jason Kittelberger, Kazutomi Kozuki, Elias Lazaridis, Johnny Lloyd, Nemo Oeghoede, Shintaro Oue, Guro Nagelhus Schia, Ira Mandela Siobhan. Child sopranos: Gabriel Kuti, Theo Lally, Gabriel Crozier. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie.

“Whether you call it shell shock or post-traumatic stress disorder, war creates serious psychological wounds. A hundred years after the outbreak of the Great War, Belgian composer Nicholas Lens and Australian author and musician Nick Cave have written a new opera on this theme. In twelve poems or canti he evokes the anonymous protagonists of the war in a highly personal and fluent style: soldiers, mothers, orphans, prisoners, etc. The testimonies of these individual characters, with whom everyone can identify, make the universal call for a humane and peaceful world. […] This new creation by La Monnaie has been incorporated into the official calendar of the Federal Committee for the Organisation of the Commemoration of World War I.” From La Monnaie’s website.

Nicholas Lens
Nicholas Lens calls his new work an opera, and he knows best, but it is subtitled “A Requiem of War” and, as mentioned in the text published by La Monnaie, above, is structured in twelve “cantos” written by Nick Cave. In my usual ignorance, I had to Google to find out who Nick Cave was. If I found his texts flat and uninspiring - “I float, I emote,” for example - that’s probably also more evidence of my ignorance. People used to his songs would know better, and undeniably the overall structure was clear.

I should imagine the kind of shortcut-by-analogy I’m about to take to describe the music drives composers mad, but I see no other simple way to give an idea of what a new work sounds like. It’s somewhere between mature-to-late Britten and Tippett’s A Child of Our Time (without the spirituals), with occasional excursions into Ligeti (the opening especially, reminiscent, no doubt superficially, of the "Dies Irae" of his Requiem) and brief hints of Gershwin. It is accessible to any regular classical-music listener and is often tonal in sound, at times even “traditionally” melodic, but without dumbing-down into easy listening. It calls for a large orchestra, with a piano, a cartload of percussion instruments, and a couple of balloons to burst; so large that at times (but not often) the singers are nearly drowned, making the supertitles especially useful.

Nick Cave
The vocal parts are mostly quite conventional; the soprano’s is perhaps the exception, requiring some stratospheric notes closer to screaming than singing. That would explain why Claron McFadden was more stretched than the others in the excellent cast: any soprano (with the possible exception of Yma Sumac, who might, however, have looked out of place in a commemoration of WWI) would be. Sara Fulgoni was so excellent I now wonder why I didn’t admire her Maddalena in Rigoletto. Ignorance again, probably. Perhaps I don’t like the part. Ed Lyon, who comes in for a fair (or rather, unfair) amount of ill-natured stick on websites, seems to me to be firming up and maturing into an excellent English-type tenor. Mark S. Doss was very impressive indeed. Gerald Thompson started out less so, but improved as the work progressed.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s staging was legible and neatly executed, seamlessly combining acting, dance, video and scene changes. The stage was white, with a white rear wall that folded into terraces of various heights, making platforms for the performers, or video screens. (At the beginning the dancers, dead, dropped off these high shelves alarmingly.) The men's costumes were the various uniforms of the armies at war, and to create a sense of sheer number, of wave after wave of soldiers and officers thrust to their deaths, the performers appeared in different uniforms as the afternoon went on. The soprano, a universal wife-and-mother figure, wore a plain, wifely, motherly, maroon dress.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
The dancers, nearly all men, kept up a kind of perpetuum mobile, not only dancing (writhing expressively) and dying in quick succession, over and over, rolling from stretcher to stretcher, but shifting around, as they danced, a small selection of props: sandbags, wooden crosses, stretchers and rifles, and using them to create new spaces or structures on stage. The singers, both soloists and chorus, were incorporated, as I just said, seamlessly into this carefully-choreographed action. Videos of soldiers in various positions: crouching, crawling, shooting, falling, dead… were projected on to the floor – this was very effective from where I sat but presumably less so from the stalls – and equally effectively on to plain white cut-out figures lined up on the terraces.

The production was, overall, impressively slick – which was the one thing about this excellent show that “bugged” me a tiny bit: the war itself was, of course, a humongous, lethal mess.

This is a work it would be good to listen to at home, or better still watch. I see La Monnaie willl stream it in November. Perhaps, after that, it will be available to buy. I’d like to.

24 Oct 2014

Puccini - Tosca

ONP Bastille, Thursday October 16 2014

Conductor: Daniel Oren. Production: Pierre Audi. Sets: Christof Hetzer. Costumes: Robby Duiveman. Lighting: Jean Kalman. Floria Tosca: Martina Serafin. Mario Cavaradossi: Marcelo Alvarez. Scarpia: Ludovic Tézier. Cesare Angelotti: Wojtek Smilek. Spoletta: Carlo Bosi. Sciarrone: André Heyboer. Il Sagrestano: Francis Dudziak. Un carceriere: Andrea Nelli. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris. Hauts-de-Seine and ONP children’s choruses.

The last time I saw Tosca was in New York, in the Met’s tired old Zeffirelli production. I hadn’t seen it in Paris for a long time, the reason being the awfulness of the previous staging: once was enough. But for the 2014-2015 season, the ONP at last announced a new one, by Pierre Audi, so we decided which of the three casts looked most promising, and booked.

In the event, it was a let-down. There was little passion in this production (“on s’ennuie” said a friend at the first interval) , though as the evening went on and, act by act, the sets got uglier, there was some dramatic improvement. It was essentially a perfectly conventional production in new (but ugly) sets, the “big idea” being a (very big) wooden cross.

In act one, it was lying flat on the stage, bunker-like, one arm towards the audience leaving a space on either side: to the left, the area in front of the Attavanti chapel, to the right Mario’s fresco - oddly, not a Madonna as such but a bevy of naked beauties borrowed from Bouguereau. People entered from the top down a narrow staircase in a slit. In acts two and three the cross was up in the air, hovering first over Scarpia’s round, cluttered, blood-red room - more like a provincial notary’s office than an apartment in the Palazzo Farnese - and finally, not over the Castel Sant’Angelo as you might expect, but over a sort of army camp in marshy land with charred trees and clumps of grass, reminiscent of a Paul Nash WWI battlefield. The little shepherd popped up to sing his song, then lay down again. No sign of a flock.

La Madonna
The costumes were standard Tosca issue, apart from there being more black leather than was likely in period Roman tailoring.

As sometimes happens, the production team seem to have focused their efforts on the overall concept and design and neglected the directing per se. Just as, in the past, singers used to bring their own costumes, here it looked like they’d each brought their own acting. As a result, Marcelo Alvarez and Martina Serafin formed an unlikely couple. In the first two acts Serafin played Tosca as a rather swanky, corseted bourgeoise with a selection of silent-film gestures: clutching her pearls, cupping her face, clawing the walls… Not a million miles from Lady Billows in her younger days, and as such, not someone you were touched by. Meanwhile, Alvarez’ Mario was an affable, ordinary, back-slapping bloke you might have a few drinks with down at the local in Buenos Aires. So you couldn’t see why they ever got together and there was little sign of passionate attachment between them.

In act two, Ludovic Tézier was more convincing as Scarpia – stolid and static, as usual, but with quite an effective set of wry and occasionally faintly lascivious facial expressions (though these must have been wasted on people up in the gods). And in act three, in a plain dress, Martina Serafin literally let her hair down and recovered her humanity. So dramatically, as I said, the opera would have ended better than it had begun, if only at the very end Tosca had had a castle to leap off. Instead, she just walked into a dazzling white light at the rear, leaving you to wonder what was supposed to have happened to her. Assumption?

Castel Sant'Angelo
Martina Serafin’s vocal resources are considerable, so there was nothing to complain about on that score; it was just a pity she wasn’t as human all the way through as she became at the end. Marcelo Alvarez’ resources are comparably impressive, but he put a great deal of effort into reining them in and nuancing his singing. In his case, it was a pity, IMHO, that, with the conductor’s apparent complicity (stopping the orchestra), he deliberately went for applause at the end of his big numbers. That looked hammy. Ludovic Tézier audibly hadn’t yet got over whatever it was he was suffering from at the start of the run: unusually for him, his voice even cracked. But he still sang with his usual elegance – not a typical Scarpia, but a musical one. And if there was, as I said, little passion in this production, Daniel Oren’s conducting, which seemed quite placid to me (and quite drawn-out to some others), was no doubt partly responsible.

Overall, despite the sound singing, not an exciting evening. Which is not at all the conclusion you hope to reach after Tosca.

Maestro Wenarto sings "Vissi d'Arte".

14 Oct 2014

Rameau - Castor et Pollux

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Monday October 13 2014

Conductor: Hervé Niquet. Production: Christian Schiaretti. Choreography: Andonis Foniadakis. Sets: Rudy Sabounghi. Costumes: Thibaut Welchlin. Lighting: Laurent Castaingt. Castor: John Tessier. Pollux: Edwin Crossley-Mercer. Télaïre: Omo Bello. Phœbé: Michèle Losier. Jupiter: Jean Teitgen. Mercure, un spartiate, un athlète: Reinoud van Mechelen. Cléone, une ombre heureuse: Hasnaa Bennani. Un grand prêtre: Marc Labonnette. Le Concert Spirituel.

Nothing new, of course, but it’s still funny how widely opinions on opera differ, making you wonder if there’s any value in reading or hearing anyone else’s. As I left the Théâtre des Champs Elysées last night, one friend I ran into exclaimed “I hated every minute!” But another simply said “On ne va pas bouder son plaisir” – literally “We aren’t going to pout (or pull faces) at our pleasure”, meaning even if the evening hadn’t been perfect, it would be fastidious deliberately to pick holes in it. I was more in sympathy with friend number two.

This new production is more beautiful than dramatically compelling: the acting is placid, even when in theory thunderbolts are crashing around, hell is opening up underfoot and heroes are either dying or returning from the dead. The drama could have done with being cranked up a good notch or two. Hervé Niquet’s refusal, with his brisk, no-nonsense tempi, to milk the mourning scenes also restrained the tragedy. So we were left, rather, to admire the plastic beauties of the staging.

The curtain was up as we entered the house, revealing… more of the house: the single set echoed (perfectly) the architecture and subdued decoration of the Théâtre des Champs Elysées itself. As my neighbour remarked, when the production goes to St Etienne, this will be less obvious. The building was, in its day (just before WWI, Paul Poiret period and just in time for the Riot of Spring), avant-garde: an all-concrete structure (though faced with marble and sculpted reliefs), discreetly and to some extent austerely neo-classical, paving the way for what would become art déco. The space on stage, with simple geometry and soft colours, like the areas front-of-house, repeated at the rear the square, fluted, gilded columns that flank the stage, reproduced some of the pale, rectangular, neo-classical frescoes in the foyer (by Bourdelle, I think), outlined in gold, and was lit from above by a copy of the house’s large, circular ceiling light - a plain, ground-glass affair with a design of clouds (it was said, before the theatre last closed for much-needed restoration, that one of those large glass panels had fallen and sliced an armchair in two).

Bourdelle and a wall painting
The ladies of the chorus were in taupe-ish grey, classically-draped dresses with one shoulder bare, while the women dancers had floatier, white versions; the soloists were in more glamorous but almost equally restrained drapery, Phoebé in green, Télaïre in gold lamé. The men of the chorus sometimes had black breastplates with moulded six-packs, or at others were in priestly robes; the soloists’ breastplates (and six-packs) were gilded, Pollux had a splendid gold, hoplite helmet, and at times he and Castor had equally splendid bi-metal shields, and lances. All the men had ample, skirt-like trousers – the male dancers bare-chested. Only Jupiter, when he descended on his cloud – cleverly, that ceiling light, with its cloud design – was in an 18th century coat, black with sparkly bits. His helmet was Greek, too, but shaped, up top, like an eagle’s head. Visually, the whole show, with its shades of grey and touches of gold in golden lighting, was almost too self-consciously harmonious. Eye candy, so to speak. But who could complain?

The acting, as I said, was fairly placid, whatever the plot brought on. It seemed a shame: a bit more acting oomph in such carefully-crafted surroundings could have made this an outstanding show. The ballets were, however, vigorous, writhing and semaphoric – they must have been exhausting for the dancers – and made the scenes in hell, wreathed in smoke and lit in red, quite effective, in a neo-baroque way. They were booed at the end, as usual, but the booing was soon out-clapped and out-cheered. I’ve seen worse ballets at the opera. Far worse – though friend number one claimed he never had, so perhaps he was among the booers. With all the mention of “ombres” (shades) underground, there was interplay with shadows on a screen lowered down, which, at the end, showed the expanding universe and a spinning zodiac.

The cast was young, so in some cases inexperience showed, but thankfully not a cast of voiceless wonders. Both tenors, John Tessier and Reinoud van Mechelen, were undeniably able to sing the bravura arias Rameau threw at them, which isn’t always the case with these young, HIP casts. Tessier was, however, at his limit and maybe a touch lightweight for the part; van Mechelen was not, belting out his “Sound the trumpets” (“Éclatez, fières trompettes”) number fearlessly, alone in front of the riveted gold safety curtain. Edwin Crossley-Mercer, a handsome figure with short grey hair (as opposed to Castor's, long and fair), confirmed the good impression he made on me in Platée earlier this year, even if, as I've often said here, rapid vibrato isn't to my taste. Jean Teitgen was a stentorian Jupiter, faultless to my ear, as I like noise, but probably a bit over the top to some people's.

Jupiter's cloud
Talking of widely differing opinions, the first review I've seen published raves about Omo Bello. She certainly has a good voice, but (I suppose this is quibbling), despite her good acting, facially at least, it seemed to me a bit premature for her to be singing a tragédienne's part like Télaïre and, to my (cloth, if you like) ear it seemed to me her intonation was at times slightly unstable. It struck me, then, that she was almost overshadowed by the interesting, bronzey timbre of Michèle Losier and even the very sweet singing of Hasnaa Bennani, unexpected in her lesser roles.

As mentioned above, Hervé Niquet's conducting is of the brisk, no-nonsense kind - to the point, very nearly, of heartlessness, undermining the work's tragic potential. I also think his orchestra lacks the rhythmic clarity, the springiness, of some of his confrères'. But that's just me, and at any rate the playing is at least efficacious. The sound is robust, almost lush. The chorus was excellent.

This is a handsome show. Cameras were in the house for television. Perhaps the production will make it to DVD, in which case it will be a nice addition to the Rameau catalogue. My mother, long a Rameau fan, will enjoy it.

27 Sep 2014

Wagner, Mahler (and Brahms)

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Friday September 26 2014

Philippe Herreweghe, Conductor. Ann Hallenberg, Mezzo Soprano. Orchestre des Champs Elysées.
  • Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, prelude to act III
  • Mahler: Kindertotenlieder
  • Brahms: symphony N°4.
For reasons I could have done without, I have a special interest in Ann Hallenberg's Mahler. Earlier this year, on account of work, I had to cancel a trip to Berlin to hear her sing Das Lied von der Erde. The Abschied I missed appeared shortly after on internet, the very day deep tragedy struck, and listening to it (many times) helped me cope. Naturally, when I saw she would be singing the Kindertotenlieder in Paris this month, I booked.

Ann Hallenberg has fretted on line that she may not be “the kind of singer the audience wants to hear in Mahler”. She is, of course, wrong to worry. Her Mahler is as anyone who knows her singing would expect: impeccably tuned for a start, perfectly phrased and intelligently nuanced, sincerely expressed, without histrionics. Her dynamic range is wide, without affecting her excellent diction, and her timbre runs from liquid bronze to raw silk.

Her concern that “my and Maestro Herreweghe's non-sentimental interpretation will be too... untraditional” may have been better founded. His is a vibrato-free zone, his orchestra is not the VPO, and Ann Hallenberg is better-known for Baroque and Rossini (not absolutely "unsentimental" perhaps, but different kinds of sentiment), so there may well be traditionalists who are upset by it. But the result is not only more transparent; it is drier and sparer than usual, and only makes the songs more uncompromisingly bleak – surely a legitimate approach, though not a comfortable one.

The songs were preceded (without a break or applause) by a snatch of Wagner and followed, after the interval, by the Brahms. But I bought my tickets to hear Ann Hallenberg sing Mahler, and by then, not convinced I needed drier, sparer Brahms, was on my way to dinner with ravening friends.

(In May I published a link to that Berlin performance of Der Abschied.)

26 Sep 2014

Rossini - Il barbiere di Siviglia

ONP Bastille, Thursday September 25 2014

Conductor: Carlo Montanaro. Production: Damiano Michieletto. Sets: Paolo Fantin. Costumes: Silvia Aymonino. Lighting: Fabio Barettin. Il Conte d’Almaviva: René Barbera. Bartolo: Carlo Lepore. Rosina: Karine Deshayes. Figaro: Dalibor Jenis. Basilio: Orlin Anastassov. Fiorello: Tiago Matos. Berta: Cornelia Oncioiu. Un Ufficiale: Lucio Prete. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

Paris’s new production of Il barbiere – not
altogether new, as it was created in Geneva in 2010 – should be fairly easy to describe. The curtain rises on an ordinary, slightly shabby, yellow street façade in Seville. We see the ground floor and three storeys above, but there could be more. To the left is a tapas bar (the Barracuda) with a giant ice cream cone and a table and chairs outside. In the middle, under Rosina’s balcony, is Almaviva’s (blue) car. All over is a multitude of realistic detail: the fire hydrant, the blue-and-white street numbers, the “no parking” sign, the graffiti, the plastic dustbin, the washing at the windows, the bird droppings running down the globe-shaped street lights. The outside scenes take place, naturally, in this street, with the chorus dressed as modern policemen or soldiers or as a colourful horde of modern locals, young and old.

For the indoors scenes, the whole central section rotates to reveal winding stairs and the inside of all the rooms, on all three floors, with their clashing wallpapers and tiles and variegated furniture, fixtures and fittings, realistic again down to the last detail, and as it turns, the singers wind their way in and out of the rooms and up and down the stairs. This is of course a classic stage set-up. What’s different here is simply the scale of the whole undertaking, the degree of detail and the precision of the directing. There were things going on (in rooms, on balconies... people living their lives) all the time: "a mini-universe," wrote one French critic. “They must have rehearsed for ages,” said the little old lady on my right.

There were also some nice ideas, like broadsheets of newspaper gently raining down during “La calunnia” or a young man streaking across on his bicycle during the storm – but no intellectual picking-apart of the story, which is apparently why one of the critics, in his review, practically sneered at the audience for applauding it so loudly (unusually, the production team was cheered on opening night).

The overall effect was colourful (e.g. Berta’s transparent plastic mac, printed with large sunflowers and worn over a yellow-and-orange dress), at times frenzied, with smoke billowing, washing flying off the lines and people running around in all directions while the lights flashed, and fun.

In these well-oiled circumstances it would have been good enough to have a cast of team-playing singing actors – which they were. But tenor René Barbera was a cut above that, with a true, full Rossini voice – no trace of what the French call a “voix de crécelle” – literally a “rattle-voice” but you know what they mean: a thin, bleating kind of tenorino – and a great deal of smiling charm and presence on stage. And Karine Deshayes is, or should be (and has been, for some years) an excellent Rosina: she produces beautiful sounds and sings with care and subtlety. Unfortunately I have to say that there were times – ensembles especially, but not only - when I could see her lips moving but hear nothing, and I was on row four of the stalls (which explains how I could see her lips moving). The Bastille is really no place for Rossini.

Apart from wondering why Il barbiere was once more at the Bastille, not Garnier (because it sells well, I imagine), I wondered why, as people (except me) liked the old production so much, we had to have a new one at all, or why the money couldn’t have been spent on a different piece of Rossini for a change. But even if the conducting was fairly ordinary: not bad but not really sparkling, it was lovely to re-discover Rossini’s masterpiece in an unpretentiously entertaining staging that (unlike Coline Serreau’s – which combined the kind of intellectual pretensions the grumpy critic missed with plain silly stage business) made the time fly.

Maestro Wenarto sings "Una voce poco fa" (in French).