A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Britten and the Boys

Another week, another opera… and this time I was sailing into unchartered waters. Wednesday night’s performance of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the London Coliseum was an completely new experience for me. Having never seen – nay, perhaps even heard – a Britten opera from start to finish, I had no idea what to expect. It wasn’t going in completely cold, having been acquainted fairly well with his War Requiem, but in operatic terms (and given what I’d seen recently by ENO), I knew I would need my thinking cap on.

Good job! Pen in hand, and pre-performance talk mentally absorbed, I was ready…

Little Me outside London Coliseum for 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' - 25 May 2011

It would be fair to say that the reviews from the première of this production were wide and varied. It was even mentioned in the pre-performance conversation that at the two previous performances there had been some persistent booing from members of the audience. I absolutely loved how conductor Leo Hussain bounced back from that question – he said something along the lines of “It is nigh-on impossible to please everybody that comes to see a performance, and to that end, we shouldn’t even try. Surely the mark of great art is something that provokes so strong a reaction.” I couldn’t agree more – and I’d like to point out that I was definitely not in the booing-camp…. I thought it was fantastic! Really thought-provoking, laugh-out-loud funny, devastatingly tragic and an all-round brilliant performance! And here’s why…

The staging for 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' at English National Opera - May 2011 © Alastair Muir

In Christopher Alden’s production, instead of a fairytale woodland somewhere outside of Athens, the action takes place in a 1960’s boys school. And it soon becomes apparent whose “dream” we are in fact in – a wandering, suited and booted man – who becomes the casual observer of the events occurring onstage.

The staging is wonderfully simple – a huge school yard, surrounded by a large grey school building. Our ever-present tacit stage-wanderer is evidently revisiting his school days. His companion is the young Puck, perhaps his schoolboy-self from many years ago. Oberon is the school master, and Tytania, the music mistress. Our four young hapless lovers are schoolchildren (although the staging did little to explain why Hermia and Helena were attending a boys school – perhaps they were at a sister school?!) Demetrius, the fit, rugby-playing cool kid is juxtaposed with Lysander’s passion for books. All looks good… here’s where Shakespeare lessons at school kick in!

Iestyn Davies (Oberon) and Anna Christy (Tytania) in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' at English National Opera - May 2011 © Alastair Muir

Iestyn Davies as the fairy king Oberon was just sensational. For the première he had apparently been suffering with bad vocal health (and ended up miming whilst a replacement sang his part)… but for this performance there was absolutely no trace of that whatsoever! His voice is incredible. I think that Oberon’s vocal line sits quite low for a counter-tenor and yet Davies sang it powerfully and confidently. His Oberon commanded instant respect from the boys and like Puck, we too were sucked into his game. A marvellous performance!

I was especially impressed with Oberon’s aria “Welcome, wanderer!”. I was treated to two versions of it as in the pre-performance talk, Davies’ understudy, Iestyn Morris, also sang it very well. Just for safekeeping, I’ve included a recording of it (from another production) at the bottom… it’s worth a listen! It also made me smile somewhat when Leo Hussain mentioned that when thinking of Britten’s Fairy King, Oberon, you perhaps think more “fairy” than “king”…!

Anna Christy as Tytania was very cold and matron-like. Her impressive coloratura and control definitely gave her character an edge. You longed to see her lose herself – yet, despite losing several items of clothing during her ‘episode’ with Bottom, her Tytania never really broke free from the ‘school rules’. This worked, though, and her admission “Oh, how I love thee” to Bottom was beautiful.

Our four Athenian lovers were perfectly matched and brilliantly cast. From Hermia and Lysander’s “I swear to thee” duet, to (eventually) Demetrius’ “O Helena, goddess, nymph, perfect, divine!”, we were treated to naïve flirtation, through sexual frustration and on to heart-pounding amour.

Helena (sung beautifully by Kate Valentine) really resonated with me – though not quite so far as her “Alas, I am as ugly as a bear” lament! Demetrius, too, sung ardently by the baritone Benedict Nelson, really struck a chord. He brought a maturity to the dithering Hermia-then-Helena-chasing school sports stud and managed an impressive number of kick-ups, when he wasn’t wowing us with his vocal prowess. Allan Clayton as Lysander was evidently a hit with the audience, and mezzo-soprano Tamara Gura as Hermia wowed me with her impressive control towards the lower end of her range – but I was definitely on the Helena-Demetrius end of the bandwagon!

Nevertheless, the four of them were wonderful in Act 3’s quartet. Staging wise, it looked like they were playing a game of human Pac-Man, but it was wonderful towards the end of the quartet when all four of them approached the audience together. Well done all!

Benedict Nelson (Demetrius) and Jamie Manton (Puck) in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' at English National Opera - May 2011 © Alastair Muir

Oh, but of course, it has to go awry! One feels ever so sorry for young Puck – doing everything to keep in his master’s favour, but losing Oberon’s affections to the small changeling boy. He mistakenly gives the wrong Athenian the love potion, cunningly disguised in cigarette form – annoying Oberon further – and is forever jumping through hoops to seek his master’s approval, receiving a caning along the way. Meanwhile, our fairy choir – the schoolboys – are running amok. [The boys, from Trinity School Croydon, were very well disciplined and dodged Britten's tricky rhythms with ease.] Whilst the sleepy Athenian lovers are taking refuge in the school, Puck sets the building alight – he plays with matches frequently throughout the performance. Nice pyrotechnics, ENO…!

And of course, we have the so-called ‘mechanicals’ or ‘rustics’ – Peter Quince and his merry band of brothers. Whenever I’ve seen the Shakespeare play on stage, this part never fails to amuse – and it didn’t disappoint. Their final ‘performance’ to the Duke and Duchess was very comical – laid thick with innuendo and cringeworthy acting. It helped to lighten the mood somewhat. Willard White as Bottom was energetic and frightfully entertaining. Disguising a powerful voice beneath Bottom’s “ee-aw”-ing was the least of his talents. He portrayed a fantastic Pyramus (the dying moment alone caused the auditorium to erupt several times into laughter), and his ‘moment’ with Tytania was acted very well. The rest of the ‘rustics’ weren’t quite as spectacular, save for the delightful Jonathan Veira as Peter Quince.

Paul Whelan (Theseus) and Jamie Manton (Puck) in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' at English National Opera - May 2011 © Alastair Muir

However, the joviality can’t last forever, and so at the end Puck returns to bring the ‘show’ to a close. Puck’s constant dream-companion turns out to be none other than Duke Theseus, who is evidently wrestling with some haunting dreams hearkening back to his schooldays, just before his wedding. In Act 3, we see Hippolyta meet him slumped against the wall – exactly the same place in which he had started in Act 1. Praise should be given to both the bass-baritone Paul Whelan as Theseus and the young actor Jamie Manson as Puck. They were on stage the entire time and managed to act as casual observers yet still interact with all of the characters on stage. For Manton, who had the only spoken role in the opera, it must have been exceptionally challenging and he was fantastic. At the end, slumped up against the wall, he cried for ages (very convincingly) and received no comfort from his alter-ego Theseus. You just wanted to give him a hug! The opera draws to a close as Theseus at last releases himself from Oberon’s control and we are left with Puck’s closing words:

“If we shadows have offended,
think but this,
and all is mended,
that you have but slumber’d here
while these visions did appear…”

Well, it was a big thumbs up from me! I really enjoyed it. It set my mind whirring and injected some new levels of thought into my knowledge of Shakespeare. Am I a Britten covert? Maybe… I certainly very much enjoyed learning about his different ‘soundscapes’ at the pre-performance talk.

Did any of you get to see the production? Or have you got any advice on how to approach Britten’s other operas? I would love to hear about your experiences.

Away with the fairies,

*me*

P.S. Here is a clip of one of my favourite arias from the opera. Sadly it’s from a different production, but enjoyable nonetheless…!

Oberon (David Daniels) singing to Puck from Act 1 – “Welcome, wanderer!”.

Die Walküre: The Met’s Mighty Machine

What better way to spend a gloomy-looking Sunday afternoon, than at my local cinema watching a Met Live in HD broadcast…! Worlds away from the ghostly moors of Lucia di Lammermoor, my second broadcast experience this year was to be the second epic adventure in Wagner’s famous Ring Cycle, Die Walküre (The Valkyrie).

Most people will have heard the famous ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ theme… I have several happy memories of my brother and me riding around the living room as children on pretend horses to it. I’m not sure, but I think I may have even heard the opening few bars on an advert for E4’s latest monstrosity Made in Chelsea, but the less said about that, the better…! The main thing to note here is that Wagner’s music is embedded in everyday life – see here for a funny example! But perhaps like many others, I had never seen one of his operas all the way through.

Last-minute ticket in hand, and enough provisions in my handbag to survive the five-and-a-half-hour screening (and probably a few more weeks)… Little Me and I were set to experience our first full-length Wagner production…

Little Me outside the cinema for the Met Encore performance of Wagner's 'Die Walküre' - 15 May 2011

The epicness that followed (and my friends will assure you that that is one of my favourite everyday words anyway!) was sensational. The three acts were so immense that cast members came on for bows after each act! Good job, really – since if they hadn’t, I expect the applause would have gone on forever!

In the first act we are introduced to the incestuous twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, and the passion between them is cultivated unbeknownst to her overbearing husband, Hunding. Siegmund transforms himself from a weak, lifeless traveller-on-the-run into a strong, passionate, ready-to-fight-anything-warrior – mainly thanks to the renewing refreshment he receives from his long-lost twin and to the empowerment he receives from the sword his estranged father destined him to wield! Phew… it’s a sensational Nordic fantasy of a story… but once you get your head around who’s who (and ignore the weirdness of the incest) it’s emotion-at-a-million-volts!

Siegmund (Jonas Kaufmann) and Sieglinde (Eva-Maria Westbroek) in Met Opera's 'Die Walküre' - May 2011 © Ken Howard

Jonas Kaufmann and Eva-Maria Westbroek as the brunette-wig-donning, über-passionate Zwillinge are off-the-page-fantastic! This is the first time I’d seen Kaufmann perform (apart from on YouTube) and he absolutely blew me away. I’m thoroughly amazed that he didn’t collapse after the first act through sheer emotional exhaustion… Whoa, that man is good!

It was also the first time I’d seen Westbroek since seeing her in racy attire in Anna Nicole, but she blew every diamanté away and made our hearts truly bleed as emotionally-torn Sieglinde. Putting the two of them together on stage gave a gut-wrenching, intense and intimate performance – one which will live on and on and on, through YouTube and (fingers crossed!) on DVD. A truly iconic performance!

One of the many configurations of the great machine in Met Opera's 'Die Walküre' - May 2011 © Ken Howard

The second act is when most of the craziness kicks off. We’re introduced to Wotan, ruler of the gods and both his wife, Fricka and his Valkyrie daughter, Brünnhilde. As a general rule of thumb, if in doubt, assume Wotan has fathered everyone. He has definitely fathered all nine of the Valkyrie sisters, and having disguised himself as the mortal Wälse, he has also sired the incestuous twins. Unsurprisingly, all of these divided loyalties come to haunt him and unfortunately Brünnhilde too.

To try and cover the plot in a paragraph…. basically, in order to keep the gods (and his wife) happy, Wotan must let his son, Siegmund, die in a fight against Sieglinde’s husband, Hunding. He sends Brünnhilde to make sure that this happens, but being taken aback by the twins’ love for one another, she disobeys her father and sets out to save Siegmund. Wotan intervenes and smashes Siegmund’s sword, allowing him to be killed. Brünnhilde helps the pregnant-with-her-brother’s-son Sieglinde escape for which Wotan sentences Brünnhilde to a mortal life. After much pleading, he lessens her punishment somewhat and puts her into a deep sleep on a mountaintop surrounded by fire, awaiting the only mortal man who will be good enough for her (which will turn out to be the son of the Sieg-twins, her half-nephew?!).

If you’re confused, I’m not surprised! Seeing it on screen made a bit more sense… there’s a better summary of the plot on the Wikipedia page. Needless to say, Wagner has a few emotions to play with… and he certainly makes the most of it. There are some videos at the end of this post which show different parts from the plot above.

Brünnhilde (Deborah Voigt) and the other Valkyries in Met Opera's 'Die Walküre' - May 2011 © Ken Howard

It’s difficult to know where to start when addressing the cast members. Bryn Terfel has been ceremoniously hailed “King of all Wotans” by many of the critics and opera-viewing public alike. And by gum, does he deserve it! Although having seen him up close in a concert in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, it never fails to astound me how much volume this man can produce. But it doesn’t even stop there – he can allow his voice to descend to no more than a whisper… and still evoke all of the power of his godly character. In this opera, Wotan is being pulled from so many angles – his love for his daughter Brünnhilde, his protection of his son Siegmund, his duty to his wife Fricka, his obligation to Valhalla – so any bass-baritone that takes on this mighty task has a lot of issues to deal with. And still, the mighty Terfel just becomes Wotan. You can see his inner turmoil in his face (and hear it in his voice). It was a wonderful performance! And to top it off… in the between-act interviews, he comes across as such a down-to-earth man it makes you love him all the more!

Brünnhilde (Deborah Voigt) and Wotan (Bryn Terfel) in Met Opera's 'Die Walküre' - May 2011 © Ken Howard

Deborah Voigt perhaps has the hardest job of them all. In this, the first of Brünnhilde’s three operas, she has quite a lot of stage time with her father, Wotan. Voigt even admitted in an interview that she had found it very challenging working with Terfel (in a good way!) because she constantly had to strive to regain the attention of the audience, which naturally is drawn to the larger-than-life Welshman. Vocally, also, it is challenging for her – since a lot of Brünnhilde’s vocal lines are based in a soprano’s mid-range. But Voigt managed to overcome all of these hurdles to produce an amazing performance. It’s great for the Met, of course, because anyone who saw her in this is going to have to go back and see her in the next two Ring installments!

Wotan (Bryn Terfel) and Fricka (Stephanie Blythe) in Met Opera's 'Die Walküre' - May 2011 © Ken Howard

Even the supporting cast, Stephanie Blythe as Fricka and Hans-Peter König as Hunding as well as all of the Valkyries, were brilliant. Blythe admitted that her character is only on stage for around 18 minutes. Compared to the length of this epic opera, that’s not a lot! However, she managed to cram such a lot into those few minutes. The upside is that she has little stage direction to master, since Fricka is brought in and taken out on her chariot. Vocally I thought she was very good – and there was definitely some dark chemistry between her and Terfel.

The final scene in Met Opera's 'Die Walküre' - Brünnhilde is encircled by a ring of fire as her father Wotan looks on - May 2011 © Ken Howard

To avoid this blog post breaking all manner of word-limit records, I just want to mention Robert Lepage’s staging of this production before I leave it in peace. The Met has created a monstrous machine, which fills the entire stage and is used to create everything from a volcanic mountain to a forest retreat. The machine consists of 24 independent ‘planks’ which rotate independently around a central axis, which itself can be moved up and down. With the help of clever lighting effects, the stage is utterly transformed from scene to scene (just watch some of the clips below – especially the bottom two!). I know that the staging hasn’t been unanimously applauded by operagoers, but personally I thought it was a wonderful invention. The logistics of it alone had my mind whirring! The final scene when Brünnhilde (Voigt’s stunt double) gets encircled by flames was absolutely incredible! I think the Met should be praised for having the guts to place all of their staging (for four operas) on one machine! And it’s Lepage’s vision that has pulled it off. A huge well done!

Well, on that note, and having exhausted my knowledge of positive adjectives… I will leave it there. I just can’t wait until the Met brings out their Ring DVD boxset!

Did you see the screening of this production? Or were you even lucky enough to see it in person? Any thoughts?

Yours in wonder,

*me*

P.S. Here are some awesome clips from the production…

Siegmund should have been a god! Well Jonas Kaufmann is heavenly in this clip from Act 1, anyway.


Eva-Maria Westbroek is emotionally torn as Sieglinde in this clip, also from Act 1.


This clip is right near the beginning of Act 2. We see Brünnhilde (Deborah Voigt) and her father Wotan (Bryn Terfel). I love the ‘Hojotoho’s sung by Voigt at 0.48…


I am definitely not condoning illegal filming, but this clip shows the Ride of the Valkyries, the beginning of Act 3. The staging gets applause on its own! And you can hear some more ‘Hojotoho’s…


And, my last clip… watch from 11.30 to the end and you will see Wotan encircling the sleeping Brünnhilde with fire. Now that’s the mighty machine in action!

Werther: Villazón’s Vocal Victory

The second production I saw last week that has captivated both critic and opera goer alike was the production of Jules Massenet’s Werther at Royal Opera House. And it wasn’t edgy direction and shocking staging such as that for ENO’s The Damnation of Faust that caused this reaction… but the return of a star! A blockbuster star booking for Royal Opera House… Rolando Villazón was making his UK comeback!

Charlotte (Sophie Koch) and Werther (Rolando Villazón) in Royal Opera House's 'Werther' - May 2011 © Catherine Ashmore

Now I wasn’t there for the première of the run – this was the fourth performance in a run of six – but Villazón’s fan-following were still out in force, judging by the reception he received from the audience. I have to say that it can’t have been easy to return to Covent Garden after such a bout of bad vocal health – but Villazón was very good and hopefully those members of the audience who weren’t aware of his history went away completely impressed. He sailed through Werther’s intense vocal line very easily – but perhaps the power in his voice has waned slightly and the youthfulness (and playfulness) has disappeared. This could be, of course, the beginning of a different vocal path for Villazón and I’m sure he’s only at the very start of his new journey. I really wish him all the best. It was wonderful to see him sing live and I hope he goes from strength to strength.

Sophie Koch as the object of Werther’s affection, Charlotte, was vocally stunning. She brought a level of maturity and duty to her character, yet managed also to give her a youthful edge (particularly in Act 1). It was a shame that when taking bows, she got a lot less applause than Villazón-the-star, because I think her performance was easily as good, if not better than the leading man’s. You can watch her in action in the first video I’ve posted at the bottom of the post – she is incredibly talented!

Little Me inside the Royal Opera House for 'Werther' - 14 May 2011

So what can I say about the production? Set-wise, it was very bleak. Huge empty spaces and large walls. In theory, I guess this allows whoever is singing (and directing) to ‘paint the canvas’ as they see fit. Movement-wise, it was a bit too static, but other than that it was fine to watch.

Werther (Rolando Villazón) and Charlotte (Sophie Koch) in an intimate setting in the final act of 'Werther' at Royal Opera House - May 2011 © Catherine Ashmore

The final act (by far the best staging) transitioned smoothly from the third by bringing a small and intimate box stage onto the main stage, through an empty, snowy street scene. The dying Werther, whose beloved Charlotte arrives just in time for him to make peace with her, was leant up against the bed, covered in blood from a self-inflicted bullet wound. The intimacy of their final moments, on such a small stage was very moving. Thankfully also in this scene (probably since Werther was supposed to be weak and suffering), Villazón calmed down his trademark demonstrative hand-gestures which added immensely to the fragility of the scene. A wonderful end to the production (even though it’s horrendous for Werther and Charlotte)!

Werther (Rolando Villazón) and Charlotte (Sophie Koch) in the final scene from Royal Opera House's 'Werther' - May 2011 © Catherine Ashmore

I must mention, though, that the lighting frustrated me no end! The large expanses of neutral coloured backdrops only served as a canvas for shadow-casting. The projections of the principal singers onto the backdrop left all kinds of weird shapes in the background which was very distracting. Also, when singing close to one another, Werther and Charlotte had to fight for the light – they were constantly in each other’s shadow (you can see it slightly in the first image of Villazón and Koch above). Perhaps it only bothered you if you noticed it early on – in subsequent acts it was a bit better.

The Bailli (Alain Vernhes), Johann (Darren Jeffery) and Schmidt (Stuart Patterson) with the Bailli's children in Royal Opera House's 'Werther' - May 2011 © Catherine Ashmore

The children in the first act were wonderful! They sang and danced with the other members of the cast with ease. It looked like a lot of fun for them. It also was the second time that I’ve seen Alain Vernhes sing, who played the old Bailli (father to the children and Charlotte). He is only present in Act 1 for a short time, but I enjoyed his part very much. It was nice to see him in an acting role after his concert performance in Pélleas et Mélisande a month ago.

Werther (Rolando Villazón) and Albert (Audun Iversen) in Royal Opera House's 'Werther' - May 2011 © Catherine Ashmore

Another short and fleeting role is that of Charlotte’s fiancé (later husband), Albert – portrayed in this production by Audun Iversen. The little that he did have to sing was impressive – especially for his ROH debut. Eri Nakamura as Charlotte’s younger sister Sophie also made a very good impression.

Apparently the performance I saw was recorded and is being broadcast on
Radio 3 on June 4th – so if you missed the run at Covent Garden, you can tune in and have a listen then.

Have any of you seen this production, or Villazón before? Any thoughts? I’ve never seen him live before – only in recordings, and of course, presenting BBC3’s What Makes A Great Tenor?.

Now, being inspired, I’m going to perfect my shadow-casting… hand animals at the ready!

*me*

P.S. Here is part of Act 3 from Werther. It’s from the same production staged in Paris in 2010. Sophie Koch is singing Charlotte with Jonas Kaufmann as Werther. Listen to his proclamation of love after 5.38… breathtaking! I’m very tempted to buy the DVD off Amazon!

This next aria, “Va! Laisse couler mes larmes” is sung by Charlotte in Act 3. Although this is from a different production – I still think it’s beautiful!

The Damnation of Faust: Berlioz gets Blitzed

I’ve certainly managed to catch a little bit of opera in the past week – but when I booked the tickets, I had no idea that these three performances in three separate opera houses, would take my operatic journey to dizzying heights.

Little Me at the London Coliseum for ENO's 'Damnation of Faust' - 12 May 2011

The first installment in this epic trilogy was the biggest thing to hit the London Coliseum in a while – Hector Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust directed by none other than Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame. The hype for this production had been building for weeks, especially since Inside Opera had been sending out daily update’s on Gilliam’s progress in the run up to the première.

First impression?
Jaw-dropping befuddlement.

Second impression?
More face-twisting discombobulation.

A week later, and current impression…?
Fair play, Mr. Gilliam – in some way all of the confusion has now settled down into in my head. What a wacky, edgy and dark production – but a good production nonetheless!

Little Me at the London Coliseum for ENO's 'Damnation of Faust' - 12 May 2011

I had decided to attend the pre-performance talk at the London Coliseum, which was very interesting and prepared me slightly for what I was about to experience. The talk – or “Join The Conversation” as ENO calls it – is a better format to the pre-performance talks I’ve been to at the Royal Opera House. It was hosted by Christopher Cook and there were three guests ‘joining in the conversation’ – Aoife Monks (a lecturer in Theatre Studies), David Cairns (Berlioz’ biographer) and Leah Hausman (ENO’s Movement Director, also Associate Director for Faust). We also got to hear a live excerpt from the production, performed (very well) by the understudy for Mephistopheles.

Now, seeing as I knew next-to-nothing about Berlioz, or indeed his Faust, I though it was pitched at just the right level. It wasn’t just about telling the audience the story of Faust, in fact, the host actively tried to stop the panellists from revealing information about the evening’s performance. They described the history of its composition, and more interestingly, the fact that Berlioz intended it to be a ‘musical drama’, not an opera. This became even more apparent during the performance, as there are huge orchestral interludes which Gilliam evidently got to play with. However, David Cairns did mention that Berlioz himself had had plans to stage it in London, and would have done so had the production company he was working with not folded. All in all it was very interesting – and apparently the ‘conversation’ is going to be made available online afterwards (I haven’t found where yet).

Faust (Peter Hoare) and Mephistopheles (Christopher Purves) in Faust's study. From ENO's 'Damnation of Faust' directed by Terry Gilliam. ©Tristram Kenton

So… to the production! Well, as I’ve mentioned, it’s taken over a week for me to get my head around parts of it. In an interview, Gilliam stated

“My idea was, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to start with German romanticism, moving through expressionism and then into the tidy world of fascism?'”

This made me smile – mainly from uneasiness, since my knowledge of the history of Germany in the early twentieth century is a little shaky. But, he certainly managed to put on a show and a half!

It all started with a spoken monologue. Mephistopheles directly addressing the audience. Curtain down. Spotlight. Apparently Mephistopheles was going to be our narrator. Within the first two minutes we heard the words “Mein Kampf”… this was going to be one hell of a ride.

The staging of this production was sensational. Hildegard Bechtler’s sets were immense living landscapes. The scene transitions were fluid and diffusive – the story was just carried along by the music. We moved from a Romantic landscape, through to Faust’s angular study (see picture above), right through to a Jew-purged town and finally to concentration camps. This was done incredibly well.

Faust (Peter Hoare), Mephistopheles (Christopher Purves) and Marguerite (Christine Rice). From ENO's 'Damnation of Faust' directed by Terry Gilliam. ©Tristram Kenton

The famous “Song of the Flea” was turned into anti-Semitic propaganda, and Marguerite’s beautiful “Ballad of the King of Thule” is sung almost as a Jewish prayer. A completely different take on some famous arias.

I have to say now that Christine Rice as Marguerite was sensational. I heard her this year in the Royal Opera House’s screening of Carmen – and she was no less powerful. The character of Marguerite was Jewish and was actively trying to disguise her heritage, donning a plaited blonde wig, but still unable to draw herself away from her Menorah. Her ascension into heaven from the gas chamber of a concentration camp was beautiful and dreadfully moving. Faust, although still besotted with Marguerite, struggles with his allegiance to the Nazis and ends up betraying her. It’s terribly sad.

Another wonderful surprise was Christopher Purves as the evil Mephistopheles. He sang very well and brought a dark, sarcastic, and manipulative air to the role. Sadly, his co-star, Peter Hoare, who played Faust himself definitely wasn’t the strongest member of the cast. He struggled at times with the higher parts of Faust’s lines. But to be fair to him, he was pretty much onstage all of the time – and having to wear a bright orange Jedward-style wig for the entirety of the performance must have dented his self-confidence! But he definitely made up for any vocal wobbles with complete commitment to the role.

The Nazi training dance sequence. From ENO's 'Damnation of Faust' directed by Terry Gilliam. ©Tristram Kenton

There were some parts of the production that my mind is still whizzing over. There was a Nazi training camp exercise-video-esque scene, where the buildings and the soldiers were battling out for the title of ‘most camp’. Hitler also kept appearing in different parts of the story (just in the background). And, at one point, Faust and Marguerite were even turned into a fake Siegfried and Brünnhilde – just to slam Wagner back in with the Nazi’s again. It was definitely a feast for the eyes and a drug for the mind.

Faust (Peter Hoare) is crucified on a swastika as Mephistopheles (Christopher Purves) watches. From ENO's 'Damnation of Faust' directed by Terry Gilliam. ©Tristram Kenton

Our leading man and his beloved both met horrible ends. Faust descended into hell on a motorbike, being chased by bomber planes and eventually being lowered headfirst into the fiery pit, before being crucified on a swastika! Imagery going wild. The opera ended with Marguerite’s ascension into heaven – and I don’t think I was the only one left gawping open-mouthed at what I’d just experienced for the previous few hours.

Nevertheless, it must have been a huge gamble for ENO to decide to enlist Gilliam as director. In some of their previous attempts with other directors it hasn’t exactly paid off. But, this was completely different. Gilliam has done a fantastic job – and his efforts have been applauded by opera goer and critic alike.

I just have to leave you with another quote from Gilliam, concerning his attitude to Berlioz’s masterpiece

“The score is there and you can’t piss around with it, apparently.”

Sums it up I think. Well, at least it brought a smile to my face!

Bis bald,

*me*

La Bohème: Keeping it Up Close and Personal

So, the day finally arrived…. I finally got to see Opera Up Close’s Olivier-Award-winning production of La Bohème… as well as notching the next mark on my Year of the Puccini. I have to say that I went in with trepidation, after having seen Opera Up Close’s revised version of Madama Butterfly and not being overly impressed at both the performance and the adaptation. But…

I have to say now, however, that it was completely different and I would definitely urge you (if you have a spare night out in Islington) to go and see it. It was fun, it was light-hearted and it was Bohème…. an up-to-date and up close Bohème, but Bohème nonetheless!

Little Me with the poster for Opera Up Close's 'La Bohème' - 30 April 2011

Before the performance even began, our two male heroes Rodolfo and Marcello were among us. They were inhabiting the performance space. It is their flat. Rodolfo, embodying a true writer, is frustrated with his laptop, and Marcello appears to be painting lips and eyes all over the wall. But they’re young and they’re happy … and more to the point, they’re guys in their twenties living in a flat together. I got the feeling, especially when Colline and Schaunard joined the merriment, that I was actually watching my younger brother and his mates. The four guys were obviously having fun! Generally the guys were good. Nicolas Dwyer as Marcello far outshone the others. He sang the role with ease and turned Marcello into a cheeky-but-loyal counterpart to Toby Scholz’s Rodolfo. Scholz struggled at times with the higher parts of Rodolfo’s vocal lines, but he was in it heart and soul. His commitment to the role made the very end believable and, despite the odd moment of straining, he was good. It was also nice that Dwyer and Scholz brought their good looks to the role… check out Dwyer on the poster above.

Once they all left, except Rodolfo, and we met Mimi, who had come for change for her electricity meter, the mood instantly shifted. From her very first opening note, Elinor Moran was fabulous. Her Mimi was wonderful and her acting, very good. I hope she gets snapped up by a big opera company soon… really hope she makes it!

Spoiler alert: If you intend to see this production and don’t want to spoil the surprise, then skip until after the next photo…

Ok, so it’s not much of a spoiler… if you’ve seen Bohème before, then you’ll know that Act 2 is set in a café. It doesn’t take a degree in rocket science to figure out that perhaps they might set Act 2 in the bar of the Kings Head Theatre… and indeed they do. This snippet of guesswork on my behalf was aided somewhat by an eager usher, gathering everyone who had tried to remain in the theatre for the interval, out into the bar. It was wonderful though! Marcello and the boys (and eventually Rodolfo and Mimi) took a reserved table in the corner and Musetta and Alcindoro burst in from the other side of the bar. The hustle and bustle of the (already full) bar just electrified the action. Rosie Bell as Musetta was marvelous… she was dancing on the tables and the bar, trying to attract Marcello’s attention – and she sang the famous waltz better than I’ve ever seen it done before! Dwyer’s Marcello certainly couldn’t keep his eyes off her…

Little Me inside the bar of the King's Head Theatre for Act 2 of Opera Up Close's 'La Bohème' - 30 April 2011

Which brings us to the final two acts. Mimi and Rodolfo’s relationship has not been plain sailing and they’ve had quite a lot of off-time, but those feelings don’t last long after they reunite in Act 3. Their subsequent love duet, sung over the top of Marcello and Musetta arguing (which was brilliantly done!) was heartfelt and made the inevitable pain of Act 4 even worse.

Moran’s dying Mimi was so tragic… and the end was a lot more moving than I thought it would be in such an enclosed space. Schaunard breaks the bad news to Marcello (and the audience) after Mimi has finally faded and this next part of Bohème is the part that always gets me. Everyone knows Mimi’s dead except Rodolfo. Since I’ve never seen Bohème sung in anything but Italian, I was surprised at how similar the end was to the end of Boublil and Schönberg’s Marguerite… “Look she’s asleep…” Scholz really brought the end home with his two cries of “Mimi!” – the first on the crest of a sob and the second muffled in Mimi’s chest. I have to say, there was a row of guys sat directly in front of me, and there was definitely some surreptitious wiping of teary eyes on T-shirts going on… Which is testament to the cast, and of course to the great Puccini!

Little Me at the King's Head Theatre for Opera Up Close's 'La Bohème' - 30 April 2011

I really enjoyed the production – and Robin Norton-Hale’s libretto actually worked very well for this ‘up close’ performance. The female leads (Elinor Moran and Rosie Bell) were absolutely fantastic but the men (especially Nicolas Dwyer) also did their best to catch up. The piano accompaniment at times was a little shaky – but I’m not sure I could play a Puccini opera from start to finish without hitting a few interesting notes!

I would like to say it’s good fun for an alternative night out in London – but I guess it depends on whether you could factor this tear-jerker into your definition of fun. I’d definitely recommend it… there’s nowhere else in London you can enjoy your favourite drink and watch a fantastic opera!

And if you’re still not persuaded… here’s the trailer of the original production…

Yours up close,

*me*

The Tsar’s Bride: Royal Opera, Russia and Rimsky-Korsakov

I have to admit, sheepishly, that when the Spring season for Royal Opera House was advertised, I didn’t immediately jump at the chance of seeing The Tsar’s Bride. It wasn’t until the Student Standby email came out, and the promise of Orchestra Stalls seats for £10 – that I jumped at the chance. A happy coincidence also was the fact that my Australian friend K and her sister would be in town. What’s better than a trip to Covent Garden as a souvenir to take home with them…? So three front row (I know!?!) seats later… and we were heading to London to see a Rimsky-Korsakov opera… Interesting to say the least!

Little Me in the front row of Royal Opera House for the performance of 'The Tsar's Bride' - 23 April 2011

I think I am correct in saying that I’ve never seen an opera in Russian. In fact, *shock horror*, I don’t think I’ve even listened to an opera in Russian. So it was first-times all round: Russian opera – check; Front row orchestra stalls – check; Using Covent Garden’s complimentary cloakroom – check! Only thing left was to see the opera….

Little Me with the programme for 'The Tsar's Bride' - Royal Opera House - 23 April 2011

The story of The Tsar’s Bride escaped me a little before I’d seen the performance. The Wikipedia entry was somewhat insightful, and the ROH programme had an interesting synopsis in it – but I have to say that I was tripping over names left, right and centre. There are two very different Grigorys and one of the central characters is referred to mainly by his surname, but by the end of the first act, I’d nearly nailed it. It did help, though, that whenever characters were addressing their comrades, there was an overriding urge to use their full name, surname and all. Whether that’s a Russian thing (or a thing invented by the librettist Il’ya Fyodorovich Tyumenev) – I don’t know – but it was very helpful.

Johan Reuter as Grigory Gryaznoy in 'The Tsar's Bride' - April 2011 © Royal Opera House

The action started in a restaurant. It catapulted you into the middle of an action movie. One of the Grigorys (Grigory Grigor’yevich Gryaznoy portrayed by Johan Reuter) was ‘dealing with’ a gagged and bound man who was trembling in the corner. Suffice it to say, said man did not last long, and his body was removed effortlessly by the obliging restaurant staff. Good job really, since all of Grigory’s friends were about to enter! Johan Reuter slammed home his authority right from the entrance. It was very obvious that whoever tried to mess with him was going to fail spectacularly.

We were also introduced to the excellent Alexander Vinogradov in the role of the other Grigory, Grigory Luk’yanovich Malyuta-Skuratov. He brought a serious, yet playful presence to the stage and I was impressed by both his vocal agility and his stage presence. His Grigory isn’t a typically ‘lead’ role. However, his character has a lot to say and doesn’t shy away from asserting his opinion.

The third most memorable appearance in Act 1 was that of the Grigory-Number-1’s girlfriend, Lyubasha, portrayed by Ekaterina Gubanova. Lyubasha really has to hold her own. She has to sing a folk song completely unaccompanied – communicating to both the packed stage and the audience alike. Gubanova gets a lot of respect from me for that!

Dmitry Popov as Ivan Sergeyevich Likov and Marina Poplavskaya as Marfa Sobakina in 'The Tsar's Bride' - April 2011 © Royal Opera House

However, the real thrust of the story doesn’t kick off until Act 2. We meet Marfa Sobakina (sung by the wonderful Marina Poplavskaya) who is the love interest of Grigory-Number-1 and will ultimately also become the fated Tsar’s bride. We meet her intended fiancé as well, the loveable Ivan Sergeyevich Lïkov (sung by Dmytro Popov). Things are still all bright and lovely in this act, but with the dark undertones from Act 1 filtering through, we know it’s not going to end well.

The third act is when we learn that the Tsar has chosen Marfa to be his bride – dashing the hopes of both Lïkov and Grigory-Number-1. In the meantime, Grigory has purchased a love potion which he intends to give Marfa, but (as in traditional opera fare) he doesn’t realise that his jealous girlfriend has substituted it for a slow-acting poison. Toasting her engagement to Lïkov (before the Tsar’s request is announced), Marfa drinks the poison which begins attacking her, inside-out…

In the fourth and final act, we see her demise. Lyubasha admits to poisoning Marfa and Grigory-Number-1 stabs his jealous girlfriend before subsequently being taken to prison. It is in no way uplifting.

However – and I state this with a danger of turning into a bit of a “fragile-leading-lady”-phile – Marina Poplavskaya was very good as a woman whose mind is deteriorating. Her ‘mad scene’ in Act 4 was exceptionally convincing. The rest of the cast also did well. I did feel sorry at one point for Dmytro Popov, as upon finishing a jubilant aria in Act 3 on a high note for his range, he lifted his arms upwards (in anticipation of applause)…. and no applause came. The conductor waited a bit too long to restart – and Popov looked a bit crestfallen. He was great, but perhaps the audience just weren’t feeling it that evening.

The pool scene (Act 3) of 'The Tsar's Bride' - April 2011 © Royal Opera House

What I must say though is that the set designs were incredible! Kevin Knight must be personally congratulated for them. Act 3 was set on an outside rooftop terrace with a swimming pool and it was like there was an actual swimming pool on stage. I was scared someone was going to fall in – especially when they balanced precariously on the diving board! Similarly, the restaurant of Act 1 was totally believable, right down to the bar at the rear – I hope the extras got a drink at the end of the night! The detail was spectacular. It really made the production.

Overall, bravo to ROH for putting on such a new production – it’s the first time The Tsar’s Bride has ever been staged there. Apparently it’s a staple piece in Russian repertoire, but is rarely performed elsewhere in the world.

And I urge all students to get involved in the Royal Opera House’s Student Standby scheme. It doesn’t happen very often (mainly for performances that haven’t sold well) and it’s more frequent to get ballet tickets, but it’s worth seeing what the view is like from a ‘good’ seat…. and make use of it while you can!

From Russia with love,

*me*

Pelléas et Mélisande: Dessay meets Debussy

I am currently staring at the programme from the performance of Pelléas et Mélisande at the Barbican on 19th April. It’s urging me to “do something different”… and how different was my first Barbican operatic experience from my previous operatic experience in Milan? Short answer… worlds apart! And here’s why…

Little Me outside the Barbican in London for a concert performance of 'Pelléas et Mélisande' - 19 April 2011

Firstly, I have to say a big thanks to my blog (and Twitter) without which I wouldn’t have even heard of this one-off performance… starring none other than my favourite soprano of the moment, Natalie Dessay! It was listed quite simply under the banner of “Great Performers” (understatement of the century) as a concert performance of Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. No idea? Me neither – I was already sold on Dessay… so was interested to see what it was like. One easy ticket booking later (the lady at the Barbican’s Box Office was extremely helpful) and I was set to go off to London.

Arriving at the Barbican is like arriving at an airport – there are so many levels and entrances and you’re not quite sure which you’re supposed to use. However, helpful signage and a very pleasant coffee with a senior gentleman I met in the foyer area, and I knew exactly what to do – I just wasn’t prepared for what was coming…

If I must sum up the performance in one word, it would be magnificent! Dessay was incredible, even though the role of Mélisande doesn’t have the vocal fireworks that you would expect in a part such as Lucia di Lammermoor for example. It may be thanks to Dessay’s petite frame that she is able to utterly transform herself into ethereal fragile creatures, but nonetheless, her voice just took over. At certain points in the performance her utterances simply floated away, almost as if on a gentle breeze. The final act when she is losing her mental faculties and ascending into the hereafter was moving beyond words. Her pain getting ever sweeter and her soul leaving forever. One knew, even before Dessay left the stage (in complete silence), that Mélisande had finally gone, leaving both the remaining soloists and the audience alike with heavy hearts. Utterly magical, deeply moving and subtly captivating … pure perfection.

Natalie Dessay

Simon Keenlyside, as Mélisande’s fated admirer, Pelléas, was vibrant, energetic and engaging. Despite having one arm in a sling, he brought such youthfulness to the role (although in reality being a few years older than his on-stage older brother). The challenging and intense nature of some of his vocal lines, pushed the very limits of his baritone range – but he powered through nonetheless. It wasn’t difficult to see why Mélisande fell for his charms, or why his older brother (and Mélisande’s husband) felt so threatened by the relations developing between them. His absence (owing to impassioned fratricide) in the final act was as clear to the audience as it was to his remorseful brother, Golaud – proving just how much the audience had connected with Keenlyside’s Pelléas in the previous acts. A brilliant performance.

Simon Keenlyside © Uwe Arens

However, the surprise discovery of Laurent Naouri as Mélisande’s husband and Pelléas’s brother, Prince Golaud, was a definitive highlight of the evening. I knew next to nothing about him before this evening’s performance, save having googled him a few times whilst researching Natalie Dessay. His English Wikipedia page is very brief and his French one isn’t much more informative. Suffice it to say that he’s been a successful concert artist and operatic bass-baritone – but he is potentially more famous for being the real life Mr. Dessay. I think this is a huge misrepresentation – he was sensational!

Not once did you blame Golaud for his actions – although the motives behind many of them are shaky. From early on in Act 1 when he unintentionally startles the weeping Mélisande, through his angry and forceful outbursts in Act 3, right through to his remorse and heartache in Act 5, Naouri expertly hit the mark. There was no space here for prettiness – what you saw and heard was raw, unplugged emotion. Golaud the Prince fathoming the murky depths of Golaud the Man. He was especially brilliant in the dialogue between Golaud and his son Yniold in Act 3. In trying to get the young and naïve boy (sung excellently by the young soprano Khatouna Gadelia) to spy on his uncle and stepmother, you were able to watch him wrestle with all manner of emotions, revolving around jealously, whilst trying to contain them, so as not to startle his child. He was aggressive, forceful, possessive and vengeful. I think I can speak for everyone present when I say that my heart was in my throat at the end of that act – I almost forgot to breathe. But Naouri didn’t stop there… heavy with remorse towards the end of the opera Golaud begs to be delivered from the mess he’s created, only to be snapped out of it by his grandfather, King Arkel (the regal and ‘treacle-thick’ bass, Alain Vernhes). Naouri pushed his voice to the limit as he clung on to fragile melodies that were escaping from his mouth. I was extremely impressed with him – and it was evident that the rest of the audience were also. We can only hope that British audiences get to see more of him… soon!

Laurent Nouri

Overall, the concert was incredible. I forgot on several occasions that it was a concert performance. My imagination was stirred and I found myself creating my own dream world. Without any sets or costumes, I was free to make the opera my own – and even now, I can still remember the exact details of the mental landscape that I created. It may help that a constant theme in the opera is water (be that fountain or lake) and that a castle is featured. One of my favourite poems is Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott and I would be lying if I said that parts of this landscape hadn’t influenced my mental picture. Although, this served only to make it more vivid…

It was also wonderful that all of the cast (apart from Keenlyside) were native French speakers. The language just poured from them so naturally and effortlessly. I have to say that I was also really impressed by Keenlyside’s French – gives me something to aspire to! It sounds strange to say, but the language became such an integral part of the performance.

The Orchestre de Paris, under the baton of Louis Langrée, were incredible. They were also star performers, given that Debussy had to write orchestral interjections at the beginning of each scene (to allow the stage directors to change scene so often). This is no feat given that there are 15 scenes in a total of 5 acts! At the end of the concert, after the orchestra had finished their very last note, Langrée lowered his arms ever so slowly, keeping the audience on hold with bated breath for at least twenty seconds after which the auditorium exploded into very well-deserved applause.

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, it turned out to be Natalie Dessay’s birthday. Naouri subtly signaled to the orchestra who unexpectedly burst into a rendition of “Happy Birthday”, whereupon her both on-stage and off-stage husband got down on one knee and presented her with a huge bouquet of flowers. What a wonderful end to a wonderful evening!

Sadly I couldn’t wait around to get any autographs – although I was told that Dessay was very chatty and pleasant!

Did any of you get to see it? Or have you seen Pelléas et Mélisande before? I was (and still am) completely captivated…

From a fantasy world,

*me*

P.S. Here are some reviews that I particularly enjoyed…

The Telegraph: “It is hard to imagine this opera better cast.”

The Guardian: “This marvellous performance gave us the greatest possible sense of [the opera's] complexity and range.”

The Spectator: “I imagine that anyone present will regard it as one of the operatic experiences of a lifetime. “

Opera Britannia: “It would be hard to imagine a better cast today and one can only hope that the concert performances presage a recording.”

Turandot: Ping, Pang, Pong and Peking’s Princess

Having been asked several times what I was going to see in Milan, I got used to my friends’ and the wider public’s ignorance of the existence of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot. However, one only has to mention “You know – the one with ‘Nessun Dorma’ in it…” and the response is unanimous… “Oh yes – that Turandot!” My raised eyebrows back in their normal position, I was ready to tackle Puccini’s final work – knowing that the number of questions about the aforementioned aria upon my return would be plentiful! No pressure, Mr. Tenor!

I have to say, the story of Turandot’s composition and subsequent première always gets me. It’s Puccini’s final opera quite simply because he died before it was completed. The end of the score, under the supervision of Puccini’s son, was completed by Franco Alfano after the great maestro’s death. Puccini, still not knowing the extent to which the throat cancer he was suffering from had taken hold, took aside his close friend Arturo Toscanini, and talked him through all of the ideas that he had formulated for the end of the composition, begging him not to let his Turandot die. During the opera’s première at La Scala just over a year after Puccini’s death, Toscanini, who was conducting, stopped the performance after the words “Liù, poesia!” simply stating “Qui finisce l’opera, perché a questo punto il maestro è morto” (“Here the opera ends, because at this point the maestro died”). How sad! There ends not just Liù’s life, but that of one of opera’s most celebrated composers – and with it, the towering reign of Italian opera. Surely that’s worth a tear or two…?!

Giorgio Barberio Corsetti's staging for Act 2 of 'Turandot' at La Scala © Teatro alla Scala

Anyway, tears aside, and having managed to crane my neck far enough so that I could actually see the stage (see my previous post), I was immediately impressed with the staging of this production. The constant changing of scenery was fluid and technically impressive – at certain points, whole houses rose out of the stage and walkways ascended and descended with ease, to quickly change scene and setting. It was a huge wow factor.

Also wonderful were the costumes. Prince Calàf’s first appearance is shrouded by so many townspeople – both actors and chorus members, that you are immediately drawn into the hustle and bustle of a busy Pekinese street. Turandot’s spectacular sparkling outfits in the subsequent two acts were also stunning and they really gave the production a big headstart.

However, despite the fluidity of the scene changes and the gorgeous swathes of falling fabric from the ceiling, the production was incredibly static. Turandot’s entrance was poised and regal and since she used her guards to intimidate the Prince, there was little room for movement. Even in large chorus scenes, the hustle and bustle stopped and became a motionless wall of sound.

Ping (Angelo Veccia), Pang (Luca Casalin) and Pong (Carlo Bosi) in Giorgio Barberio Corsetti's production of 'Turandot' - La Scala - April 2011 © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano

Creatively, perhaps, the director Giorgio Barberio Corsetti gave the three ministers Ping, Pang and Pong alter egos: basically circus performers – whose main task was to leap around the stage following some kind of gymnastic routine while the librettists’ answer to Snap, Crackle and Pop sang their famous songs. Did it work? Not so sure. Impressive choreography – but not enough to inject some life into the movement of the performance.

However, the orchestra under the baton of Valery Gergiev were just right. Powerful where strength was needed; supportive when guidance was necessary. The music from the pit was exceptional.

Giorgio Barberio Corsetti's staging for Act 3 of 'Turandot' at La Scala © Teatro alla Scala

Lise Lindstrom as the title character, sailed through her role with ease. Her tone was cold, her emotions reigned in – but this suited Turandot perfectly. Sadly, a lack of chemistry between Lindstrom and her leading man Stuart Neill as the Prince Calàf, caused the end to feel a little empty (and somewhat creepy). Calàf’s advances on the defensive Turandot towards the end of the final act were a bit too forceful – verging on rape-esque – and subsequently Turandot’s change of heart was a little hard to empathise with. Some good singing from Neill – an impressive live ‘Nessun Dorma’. After a few wobbles in the first act, I was crossing my fingers, but he definitely delivered.

I have to say though, that the heroine of this performance has to be Ekaterina Scherbachenko as the servant girl, Liù. What a wonderful performance! Her ‘Signore, ascolta!’ sent shivers down the spine… for all the right reasons. I could have listened to it forever! I definitely want to hear more from her.

Little Me in the box inside Teatro alla Scala - 16 April 2011

Overall, a fantastic experience. Eight-five years after it’s première in La Scala, I was sat in the same room, hearing the same wonderful music. Although leaving with neck cramps and pockets considerably lighter, it was still a wonderful experience: one definitely to be repeated! And perhaps my Turandot story won’t stop there either… only time will tell!

With fond memories,

*me*

P.S. Here is Opera Brittania’s interesting review of this production (with a slightly different cast). Sadly, they didn’t see Scherbachenko – but I think it’s worth a read.

P.P.S. Couldn’t resist… two wonderful clips of ‘Signore, ascolta!’ and ‘Nessun Dorma’, sung by Maria Callas and Luciano Pavarotti respectively.


Fidelio: Failing to Flourish

What better way to cure my Met-withdrawal symptoms than going to see a production loaned to Covent Garden by the Met?! Yes? Sadly, no! I’m loathed to report, though, that with the best will in the world, Fidelio just didn’t cut the mustard.

It may be the fact that I had just come back from appreciating the awesome size of the Met’s stage – but for starters, I couldn’t even see half of Robert Israel’s set! For the first act this wasn’t a huge problem, but later on in the second act I missed out on quite a lot of the action – Pizarro’s demise in particular. I’ve never had such a great problem before sitting in the Amphitheatre – but this production definitely favoured those sat in higher priced seats!

Elizabeth Watts (Marzelline), Nina Stemme (Leonore) and Kurt Rydl (Rocco) in Royal Opera House's production of 'Fidelio' - April 2011 © Royal Opera House

All in all, it started out fairly well. Elizabeth Watts was a charming Marzelline and Kurt Rydl sang a solid Rocco in the first act. The entrance of Leonore (the usually magnificent Nina Stemme) was a little short of inspiring – but I was persuaded to go with it. However, eighty minutes later with the fall of the curtain, I still didn’t feel it.

I have to say, however, that the prisoners’ chorus towards the end of the first act was very pleasing – crisp dynamic contrast and delicately layered voices. It didn’t even matter that I couldn’t see the majority of them. Well done, members of the male chorus!

Nina Stemme as Leonore and Endrik Wottrich as Florestan in Royal Opera House's production of 'Fidelio' - April 2011 © Alastair Muir

The second act, set in the very depths of the prison, failed to illuminate any of the hope I had mustered of the second act being better than the first – the only illumination coming from two very indelicately positioned bright strip lights in the middle of the floor. The fact that Florestan actually had to turn them on (in canteen-style blinking fashion) made it even more ludicrous! Endrik Wottrich, reprising his leading role from Royal Opera House’s previous run of this production, broke into the post-interval silence with Florestan’s very moving plea “Gott…!” This note came from the shadows of the gloomy prison into the darkness of the auditorium and was a glimmer of hope for the production. Yet, from then onwards, I didn’t feel that his Florestan really spoke to me – powerful, yes; passionate, no.

I was very much looking forward to the love duet “O namenlose Freude!” (I have included a good clip at the bottom…) but there was no passion in this rendition. Perhaps I was too reminiscent of the first time I heard it in Sydney Opera House – I just didn’t engage with it at all this time.

Little Me at Royal Opera House's production of 'Fidelio' - 11 April 2011

So unfortunately, perhaps on a post-Met low, I came away a little underenthused! The evening wasn’t a complete waste though. I attended the pre-performance talk by Gregory Dart – which was very enlightening and told us a lot of the composition’s history. I had no idea that Beethoven first composed a version of the opera entitled Leonore, and as well as detailing differences between the separate versions that he wrote, we also got to hear audio clips from both productions. All of this was seated in its political context and was very informative.

Furthermore, this happened to be my close friend C’s first Royal Opera House experience – one of many, I hope! She had a very good time and I’m definitely going to try and persuade her to come with me again. I don’t think it’ll be too much of a challenge…

With La Scala updates to follow,

*me*

Capriccio: Divas and Dialogue

Ironically, given that Richard Strauss’s Capriccio is usually described as a “conversation piece for music”, I am somewhat at a loss for words. I have to admit that it wasn’t the opera that enticed me to buy tickets – it was rather the fact that the infamous Renée Fleming was singing the main role and I thought it would be a good way to round off my operatic week in New York.

Was I in for a surprise? Definitely!

Renée Fleming as the Countess in Richard Strauss' 'Capriccio' - April 2011 © Metropolitan Opera

I had never come across the term “conversation piece” before. In broad terms, it means that the ‘traditional’ use of arias is done away with, and a more fluid, conversational style takes over. This means that there is less emphasis on big solo pieces for leading cast members and more importance given to the interaction between characters. The piece is a continuum of conversation, ranging from spoken words through to individual ‘aria’-like moments – but the thread of dialogue always remains.

The story is nondescript. In fact, it is supposed to depict the sequence of events that led to this particular opera being written. It poses the question: which is better: music or words? This is evidently an issue which Strauss cannot answer, and needless to say he does not even try. The story revolves around a recently widowed Countess and her friends who spend an afternoon discussing this very issue. She is romantically inclined towards both a composer and a poet and is trying to choose between the two. One writes her a sonnet and the other sets it to music and she proposes that opera should be the happy marriage of the two – as one or other of them have been commissioned to write a ‘work’ in her honour. It is, however, left up to her to decide the ending of this opera. In her indecision, she doesn’t let us know what she decides and so we are none the wiser.

This one-act opera is performed continuously for two and a half hours. Fittingly, I suppose, since there doesn’t appear to be anywhere to easily fit in an interval. It is, however, bemusing as you come out as confused and intrigued as you went in. There are some wonderful musical moments and some parts are very funny – but one wonders if it might have been better to spend the time discussing the same issues with one’s own friends instead.

A scene from Richard Strauss' 'Capriccio'. From left to right: Joseph Kaiser (Flamand), Peter Rose (La Roche), Sarah Connolly (Clairon), Morten Frank Larsen (The Count) and Renée Fleming (The Countess) © Metropolitan Opera

I have to say, though, that the company were very talented. None of them had particularly shining roles and it was very much a united performance. La Roche, a theatre director, portrayed by Peter Rose, had a slightly bigger part than some and, of course, Renée Fleming as the Countess, has the end of the opera to herself as she debates the central issues internally. This opera wouldn’t have worked if any of the cast members were not of equal ability – it requires a complete team effort to make it succeed and they did very well.

I especially enjoyed the comedic interludes by the ballet dancers, Jennifer Goodman and Griff Braun, and the ‘Italian singers’, Olga Makarina and Barry Banks. They mustered a few laughs from the serious audience and lightened the tone somewhat.

Overall, I don’t think I’m going to be converted to Strauss overnight. It was an interesting production to watch – and I can’t fault the performers – but perhaps I’m a little traditional and prefer some ‘big arias’ to hook onto.

Little Me overlooking the Met Opera's staircase for the production of 'Capriccio' - 7 April 2011

Are there any Strauss lovers out there? Have you ever seen Capriccio? I would be interested to hear your take on it – or whether you would recommend any further listening to get more into it?

Yours, having Met-withdrawal symptoms already,

*me*