Viva Simon

Verdi – Simon Boccanegra

 

Simon Boccanegra – Plácido Domingo

Amelia Grimaldi – Yu Guanqun

Jacopo Fiesco – Vitalij Kowaljow

Gabriele Adorno – Ivan Magrì

Paolo Albiani – Gevorg Hakobyan

Pietro – Sergei Artamonov

Capitano – Valentino Buzza

 

Cor de la Generalitat Valenciana, Orquestra de la Communitat Valenciana / Evelino Pidò

Stage Director – Lluís Pasqual.

 

Palau de les Arts, València.  Sunday, March 30th, 2014.

 

I try to get to the Palau de les Arts at least once every season. It’s a stunning house and the orchestra and chorus are amongst the best around. I’ve mentioned in previous posts how, as they announce their season very late, it’s difficult to organize trips there. Despite this, I booked for this Boccanegra and for Forza and Turandot in June. One of the main issues why the season is published so late is due to the fact that the grant from the autonomous community government isn’t confirmed until quite late. Yet Helga Schmidt and her team always manage to pull together an interesting program that attracts some well known artists and also some very promising new ones. In the Palau, València has a world class opera house that can rank amongst the very best and I hope that it will continue to flourish.

 

Tonight was the first time for me to hear Plácido Domingo live. An announcement was made at the start of the evening but it was not necessary. Apart from some slight dryness in the tone he sang magnificently. When I heard Maestro Domingo’s Verdi baritone arias disc last year I was filled with a feeling of gratitude for a long career but regret that the voice was no longer what it was. Tonight was a very different experience. I feel so privileged to have finally had the chance to see him as it was like watching a master at work. There was a lifetime of experience in the way he phrased the music, his attention to text and his ability to make the music more than dots on a page. The voice sounded incredibly youthful, mainly due to the timbre which was brighter than the usual baritonal sound the part was written for, yet the lower part of the range was perfectly secure. It might not have been a classic Boccanegra but it was undoubtedly a great one.

 

Yu Guanqun’s Amelia was very similar to her Desdemona last June. The voice is attractive enough and the technique is solid. The legato is easy and the intonation true. Yet there was a lack of individuality in her interpretation, that ability to make more of the notes that Domingo has that can make her stand out amongst the best Verdi sopranos. She is certainly a very serviceable artist but perhaps not yet a memorable one. Ivan Magrì was an interesting Adorno. The Sicilian tenor has a lot of sunshine warmth in his voice and in many ways reminded me of a young Josep Carreras. The voice did seem a size too small for the role though and there were times when he was audibly pushing it beyond its natural limits. He is a highly promising artist with a very attractive voice and he could certainly grow into the role. Vitalij Kowaljow once again proved himself as one of the finest basses out there with a Fiesco of warmth and generosity. In the rest of the cast I also very much enjoyed Gevorg Hakovyan’s Paolo another promising bass who I hope will one day give us his Fiesco.

 

As expected at this address this choral singing was in a class of its own. Discipline, blend and amplitude were all there. If this isn’t the most choral of Verdi’s operas, I’m looking forward to seeing them later in the year in two works that have much bigger choral parts. The orchestra cemented its reputation as one of the best too with playing of real warmth, especially in the prelude. Unfortunately, I found Evelino Pidò’s conducting ironed out the drama inherent in the score. It was lyrical in the calmer passages and it was paced decently enough, it’s just that it lacked a sharpness of attack that the music desperately needs. It was very well played but it really needed to be crisper.

 

Unfortunately, I have nothing positive to say about Lluís Pasqual’s staging. Sometimes, I’ll see a production that, while not to my taste, just completely works. Here I spent the evening wishing that they had just done a concert performance instead. Amateurish is probably to kind an adjective to describe it. The sets were very basic with a view of the sea in the background and three grills that rose and descended every so often. Costumes (Franca Squarciapino) were reflective of the period the opera was set in and Personenregie seemed to consist of directing the principals to stand and deliver. I am sure a lot of people enjoyed this traditional staging, I didn’t. Anyone seeing this great work for the first time may well have wondered what the point was.

 

Despite the issues, this was a great evening in the theatre. I feel immensely privileged to have been able to see a great master at work and enjoyed the singing of some promising young artists. Naturally, also I enjoyed the outstanding orchestra and chorus that are a credit to this house.

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Chacun le sait

Donizetti – La Fille du régiment

 Marie – Patrizia Ciofi

Tonio – Frédéric Antoun

Sulpice – Pietro Spagnoli

La Marquise de Berkenfield – Ewa Podleś

La Duchesse de Crackentorp – Kiri Te Kanawa

Hortensius – Donald Maxwell

 Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Yves Abel.

Stage director – Laurent Pelly.

Royal Opera House, London.  Tuesday, March 18th, 2014.

 

This was the second consecutive evening that I spent at the Royal Opera House after a thrilling Frau ohne Schatten the previous evening.  I very much hope to find time to finish writing my post on that particular show as it was an incredible evening.  In the meantime, I just wanted to share some thoughts on this outstanding Fille du regiment that I had the pleasure of seeing.

 Laurent Pelly’s staging has been around quite a bit and before it started I initially worried that it might be getting a bit stale.  I needn’t have worried as, as soon as it began, it seemed as fresh as the day it was first performed.  I think part of this was certainly due to Yves Abel’s perfectly-paced account of the score.  In a score where invention can occasionally seem lacking, Abel papered over the cracks and conducted a reading that was full of vigour and swing.  It was terrific.  There were the usual occasional intonation issues in the strings here and there but otherwise it was competently played.  

He was joined by a superb cast who really did justice to Donizetti’s writing.  The main attraction for me was the chance to reacquaint myself with the outstanding Quebec tenor Frédéric Antoun.  He is one of a remarkable generation of artists from la belle province right now and it is truly extraordinary how this nation of eight million people can produce so many singers of such excellent quality.  Indeed, it gave me immense pride to see an artist from chez nous perform on this major international stage.  Antoun’s voice has a rich mahogany tone quality but the range holds no terrors and his top opens up beautifully.  The line is easy and he has an implicit understanding of the phraseology that is simply magical.  Combined with perfect diction, he really is an artist to watch in this repertoire.  Make no mistake, this is a major talent.  It is remarkable to think that I have seen two outstanding young exponents of this role within a few months of each other, following the Mexican tenor, Eleazar Rodríguez, in Karlsruhe last November.  Who said the art of bel canto is no more?

Patrizia Ciofi sounded slightly under the weather as Marie.  There was a graininess to the tone that I was not previously aware of and there were reports from the start of the run that she was unwell.  Despite that, she sang and acted fearlessly, the range holding no terrors and she gave everything to the role.  I very much enjoy her dusky tone and pearly top and it was certainly there tonight.  Ewa Podleś almost stole the show as the Marquise showing off all of her amazing range.  Her fruity contralto with its shimmering top is a great fit for the role and she played the part of the grande dame to perfection.  I’m very much looking forward to her Klytämnestra in Warsaw in a few weeks’ time.   

Donald Maxwell is a highly experienced Hortensius and he was a witty and engaging presence.  Likewise, Pietro Spagnoli’s Sulpice was terrifically sung and winningly acted.  Tonight also marked the final appearance of Kiri Te Kanawa.  It was in fact the only time I have ever seen her on stage.  If the vibrations have loosened and the voice isn’t quite what it was, that easy top is certainly still there and she rewarded us with a brief musical interlude.  The dialogue was delivered fluently. 

Te Kanawa’s presence was a reminder that time doesn’t stop and that all great artists eventually move on.  Fortunately, she has left us a great recorded legacy that can be enjoyed for many more years to come.  

This was a superb performance of a show that can still amuse and move as much as ever.  It also showcased a major new talent and allowed others to shine.  It was one of those evenings that cemented the Royal Opera House’s reputation as one of the world’s finest.

 

 

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A Perfect Rosenkavalier

Strauss – Der Rosenkavalier.

Feldmarschallin – Soile Isokoski
Baron Ochs – Peter Rose
Octavian – Alice Coote
Faninal – Martin Gantner
Sophie – Mojca Erdman
Marianne Leitmetzerin – Ingrid Kaiserfeld
Valzacchi – Ulrich Reß
Annina – Heike Grötzinger
Sänger – Kim Wookyung

Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Kirill Petrenko
Stage director – Otto Schenk

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Saturday, March 8th, 2014

Der Rosenkavalier is an opera I have been exceptionally lucky with in the theatre.  It seems that all the productions I have seen have been exceptional in many ways and tonight was no exception.  More than that, it was an ideal performance crowned by a assumption of the Marschallin that was nothing other than perfection.  Otto Schenk’s 40-year old staging is as fresh as the day it was premiered with impressive sets and costumes.  I wouldn’t normally go out of my way to see a production as traditional as this but it was absolutely magical.  The Bayerische Staatsoper, perhaps even more than Dresden where Rosenkavalier was first performed, owns this piece and it showed this outstanding house at its very best.  While watching it, it was incredible to think of the ladies who have stood on that set over the years, the conductors who have worked their magic and the audiences who have received so much pleasure from it. 

Soile Isokoski is the Marschallin of one’s dreams.  Incredible to think that she is 57 this year since her instrument is so fresh and youthful. The peaches and cream tone, the ability to spin incredibly long lines and the impeccable diction all combined to produce a spellbinding evening.  She has this innate understanding of the work and ability to phrase the conversational lines that is sheer perfection.  The close of Act 1, where she looks into the mirror and contemplates her reflection will stay with me for a very long time.

Alice Coote was a superb Octavian.  Her Mariandel was so witty, the Viennese accent impeccable and her tone was rich and even.  There was a slight rawness at the very top but it was forgivable given the length of the evening.  An announcement was made for Mojca Erdman’s Sophie due to allergies and she had a very slight tendency to sing sharp when she first appeared.  She relaxed soon afterwards and she was irresistible.  Her bright silvery soprano with a tight vibrato is perfect for the work and she blended wonderfully with Coote’s ardent Octavian.  The Presentation of the Rose was everything I hoped it would be and more and the closing duet was exquisite.

Peter Rose’s Ochs was a major achievement.  His diction was exceptionally clear and he also made a real effort with the Viennese accent.  His large resonant voice was a perfect fit for the role.  His fine wit and comic timing were flawless.  It’s impossible to single out all the individual performances from the large cast but Kim Wookyung was a wonderfully rich and expressive Italian singer and Heike Grötzinger was a vivacious Annina.  All the minor roles were very well taken.

When I heard Kirill Petrenko lead Onegin and Mahler 3 in this house in January, I wasn’t quite convinced by his conducting.  I found that he conducted vertically rather than horizontally and it lacked a sense of line.  Tonight was completely different.  He paced the work to perfection and conducted a reading that was so completely idiomatic.  The waltz rhythms, the quicksilver changes of mood – everything was there.  Yes the trio ground to a halt as it always seems to do but at no point did I find anything unconvincing in his conducting.  The playing of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester was glorious, not a note out of place, and every section covered itself in glory.

This was one of those life-changing evenings that will stay in the memory forever.  In a work that seems indestructible this was the greatest possible of performances crowned by Isokoski’s flawless Marschallin.  I feel so exceptionally privileged to have seen it.

 

 

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Simplicity, Snow & What Could Have Been

Tchaikovsky – Yevgeny Onegin

Tatyana – Dinara Alieva
Olga – Nadia Krasteva
Larina – Zoryana Kushpler
Filippyevna – Aura Twarowska
Lensky – Rolando Villazón
Yevgeny Onegin – Mariusz Kwiecień
Captain – Mihail Dogotari
Triquet – Norbert Ernst
Zaretski – Mihail Dogotari
Prince Gremin – Ain Anger

Chor der Wiener Staatsoper, Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper / Patrick Lange
Stage Director – Falk Richter

Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna. Friday, March 7th, 2014

This was a bit of a mixed bag performance. There was so much that was wonderful but also a fair bit that frustrated. Yet by the end it moved me perhaps more than any other Onegin I’ve seen and this is the fifth I have seen in the last 2 years.

I’ll start with the frustrations. The playing of the Staatsoper orchestra was, quite frankly, unacceptable. There were missed cues, such as when the trumpets enter at the end of the letter scene, string intonation was often raw and there were a lot of fluffed horn notes. Given that this is Vienna, the waltz was incredibly heavy on its feet and one point it threatened to come to a halt. Given the profile of the house this is not the kind of playing that one would expect. That said, there were times when the richness of the Viennese strings came to the fore with some beautiful portamenti. Patrick Lange conducted a reading that was nicely swift and paced very well. I imagine that he did not have much time with the band and so it could well be that with more rehearsal the playing would have been less accident-prone.

I really liked the simplicity of Falk Richter’s modern-dress staging. The constant presence of snow and ice on the stage compared nicely with the warmth of the personalities within. It was a place where most of the characters wore black and Tatyana seemed to want to confirm to their world and by falling in love with Onegin that was her way of joining the multitude of couples standing at the back of the stage. The progression from yearning farm girl to urban princess was beautifully done. There was a simplicity with minimal sets yet ravishing stage pictures that put the singers and their portrayals of their characters’ emotions first and the result, with this cast of outstanding singer-actors, was incredibly moving. Paradoxically given the undoubtedly limited rehearsal time, this felt like a real ensemble performance with characters who really related to each other.

Rolando Villazón has come a long way since his vocal crisis. It would be wrong to say that the voice is what it used to be. It was tight and constricted especially at the top and it just did not respond in the way that he clearly would have liked it to. Yet, he has obviously worked very hard on the style and language and he was an endearing Lensky. His ‘kuda, kuda’ was beautifully phrased and sung with exquisite breath control and legato. There was so much to admire in his reading that one forgave the technical shortcomings.

Dinara Alieva is new to me and she was a beautiful Tatyana. It’s incredible the difference it makes to hear a Tatyana who can actually sing in tune and instead of the saggy intonation offered by the two Tatyanas I heard more recently, here we had a secure and incredibly moving reading. The voice is a medium-sized lyric soprano and I imagine Tatyana is about the heaviest role that she would take on. The sound has a touch of metal with a tight vibrato. The range of colours is perhaps limited but she is a fine Tatyana indeed.

I love Mariusz Kwiecień’s Onegin as much as I love his Posa and he did not disappoint tonight. He sounded like he had not quite recovered from the illness that affected his last few Don Giovannis in London and taking on a big role such as Onegin only a few days after finishing that particular run is quite punishing scheduling. The voice did however open up nicely later on. I write so much about his glorious bronze tone, his effortless breath control and generous legato that I fear it might become clichéd. Yet those qualities that mean I’d travel a long way to hear him were there. His Onegin tonight was urbane and sexy and it was perfectly understandable why Tatyana would fall for him. By the end, he and Alieva moved me more in that final scene than it has ever moved me before.

Nadia Krasteva was a deliciously fruity Olga but the Larina and Filippyevna were quite hooty. Ain Anger’s Gremin started off a little tremulously but settled down nicely to offer some theatre-filling low notes. Impressive. The chorus had a good night – warm tone with good blend and their ensemble put their orchestral colleagues to shame.

There were times tonight where the routine that can affect performances at the Wiener Staatsoper threatened to set in yet by the end it was one of the finest Onegins I’ve seen thanks to some glorious individual performances. It was well worth the journey.

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Ladies’ Night

Puccini: Turandot

Turandot – Iréne Theorin
Altoum – Alasdair Elliott
Timur – Matthew Rose
Calaf – Alfred Kim
Liù – Ailyn Pérez
Ping – Grant Doyle
Pang – David Butt Philip
Pong – Luis Gomes
Mandarin – Ashley Riches

Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Nicola Luisotti.
Stage Director – Andrei Serban

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. Tuesday, March 4th, 2014.

This was the second revival of the Royal Opera’s 30-year old Turandot in the 2013 – 14 season. I caught it last September but didn’t get a chance to write about it at the time. It was notable for the stunning assumption of the title role by Lise Lindstrom who rode the waves of sound in the most incredible way. This time the attraction for me was the Liù of the wonderful Chicago soprano Ailyn Pérez and Iréne Theorin in the title role. Theorin I saw as Elektra at the Bastille last December and at the time I had trouble hearing her due to the Bastille’s poor acoustic. I also saw Pérez at the start of January as an outstanding Manon in the Royal Opera’s staging of Massenet’s opera. There she was just astonishing, the voice so easily produced but with a clarity of diction that evades the vast majority of non-francophone and even many francophone singers. That Manon was in a week where I also saw ENO’s peerless Peter Grimes – where the ENO Chorus clearly positioned itself as one of the very best – and the Royal Opera Don Giovanni. Unfortunately, I only had time then to write about one of those shows but the fact that I didn’t mention the others has no bearing on their superlative quality.

I’ve always found Turandot a problematic work. Leaving aside the fact that Puccini didn’t live to finish it, it is often hard to look beyond the blatant sexism, misogyny and racism that pervades the work. And yet, that gladiatorial combat of vocalism between Turandot and Calaf in act 2, the tear-jerking arias for Liù that are a gift to any lyric soprano with an impeccable technique, and those wonderful choruses that give the best opera choruses an opportunity to shine combine to make it a really memorable evening in the theatre.

I’ve always thought that there are three ways for directors to approach the work. To play it relatively straight and give it lots of ‘local’ colour, to set it in some far off fantasy land that is not quite of this world or a revisionist staging that really tries to engage with the problematic issues that the piece raises. I long for the day that Calixto Bieito takes on the work as I imagine his staging would really look at the piece afresh. Andrei Serban’s staging just plays it straight and is visually quite impressive. There is not much soul to it and characters are two-dimensional as if dwarfed by all the stage business going on around them. It also looks its age and it is surely time for the Royal Opera to invest in a new staging. It’s a great ‘show’ but provides no new insights nor does it make one think afresh about the work.

The real attraction of this particular revival though was in the singing. In the title role, Iréne Theorin, truly sang Puccini’s fiendishly difficult music. She was by far the most musical Turandot I’ve ever heard. Despite her almost constant diet of Brünnhildes and Elektras, her vocal health is astounding. The voice seemingly has no limits, the tone is bright and the top brilliant. Her diction was a bit Sutherland-esque and she wasn’t the fire-breathing Turandot that others have been but she was a more human and warmer character. Very impressive.

Ailyn Pérez confirmed the wonderful impressions she made as Manon. Again, a particular strength in her singing was the clarity and completely idiomatic nature of her diction. The line was beautifully phrased and her silvery yet rich lyric soprano filled the house beautifully. Yet there was much more than that. There is a vulnerability to the tone that goes straight to the heart and recalls Victoria de los Ángeles. Just like the Catalan singer, Pérez uses the warmth of her tone in the most affecting way. We are so lucky to have her three times at the Royal Opera this season and I am very much looking forward to her forthcoming Violetta. A remarkable artist and a major talent.

The men were decent without being spectacular. Alfred Kim displayed a firm tenor that was notable for its richness and consistency of tone and he tried very hard to phrase the music and make much of the words. It wasn’t the most memorable assumption but he hit all the big moments, a nice spot-on top C in the riddle scene and got through ‘that’ aria efficiently enough and for that we must be grateful. Matthew Rose seemed to me to be having an off-night. The richness of tone was there but there was also a tendency to sing on the sharp side of the note. The trio of ministers was more than competent, especially Grant Doyle’s fluently-sung Ping.

It seems that every time I write about the Royal Opera Chorus I’m quite negative and I do hate being negative. Yet, I really feel that a lot of work needs to be done there to bring it up to the standard that the house should really be offering. Ensemble was not unanimous, there were several individual voices sticking out and the wobbly tone was tiresome. What other choruses such as ENO’s or that of the Berlin Deutsche Oper have in common is a discipline of ensemble and unanimity of tone that the Royal Opera Chorus lacks. There are obviously some very good individual singers in the chorus but collectively it doesn’t seem to work.

Nicola Luisotti is so much more at home with Puccini than he is with Mozart. His Royal Opera Nabucco was the best example of Verdi conducting that I have heard at Covent Garden and I feel the same way about his Puccini. He brought out so much colour in the orchestration and elicited playing from the orchestra that was both ravishing and brutal. The problem was that there were major ensemble issues between the chorus and the pit and often within the orchestra itself. I can’t figure out why that was – Luisotti’s beat was perfectly clear – and I can only put it down to fatigue as they are dealing with quite a few demanding scores right now. I definitely want to hear more Verdi and Puccini from Luisotti and I sincerely hope that the Royal Opera invites him back soon in this repertoire.

This was musically one of the most memorable Turandots I’ve heard. The ladies were outstanding and it was well-executed with a very solid cast. The staging is showing its age but it is definitely worth seeing for the stunning contributions of Theorin & Pérez. Both are undoubtedly two major stars.

 


Ballroom Ballo

Verdi – Un Ballo in Maschera

Amelia – Adrianne Pieczonka
Riccardo – Dimitri Pittas
Ulrica – Yelena Manistina
Renato – Roland Wood
Oscar – Simone Osborne
Silvano – Gregory Dahl
Samuel – Evan Boyer
Tom – Giovanni Battista Parodi

Canadian Opera Company Chorus, Canadian Opera Company Orchestra / Stephen Lord.
Stage directors – Jossie Wieler & Sergio Morabito.

Four Seasons Centre, Toronto, Ontario. Sunday, February 16th, 2014.

 

This was the third stop on a visit that also took in two concerts with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. Those two concerts showcased an orchestra on exceptional form obviously flourishing under Kent Nagano’s leadership and in a hall that is the equal of any major concert hall in the world. If I didn’t post anything about the concerts it is no indication of their superlative quality more that I am not as comfortable writing about symphonic music at length as I am about vocal music.

Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre is the home of the Canadian Opera Company and it is a beautiful theatre. Sight lines are good but ticket prices are slightly higher than European theatres. They do however offer excellent deals for unsold last minute seats. The audience is not the best behaved – constant talking, the odd cellphone going off, candy unwrapping and constantly applauding before the music ended became really tiring by the end. It’s a wonderful house though and certainly worth a visit.

Un Ballo in maschera is a work I have been very lucky with in the theatre. The first Ballo I saw on stage was Bieito’s at ENO and it was outstanding. I then had the pleasure of seeing La Urmana at her absolute peak as Amelia at the Teatro Real in 2008 – one of the finest examples of Verdi singing I have ever heard. So I had high hopes for today’s performance with an exciting cast – one of the world’s greatest sopranos with two very exciting talents. If it didn’t quite ultimately convince I think that was more due to the staging and conducting than the singing which was of an excellent quality indeed.

The staging was imported from the Berlin Staatsoper and was the work of the team of Jossi Wieler & Sergio Morabito. It was updated to 1960s USA and the single set was a ballroom, with a bar on one side occupied by serving ladies and a stage on the other. Despite the updated setting the storytelling was actually incredibly conventional. It followed the plot closely with only the second act where Amelia refers to the ‘orrido campo’ not quite making sense. Otherwise it was just a straightforward framework for the action. It brought no new insights but neither was it offensive. I longed for the theatrical dynamism of a Bieito or even the originality of a Tcherniakov.

Perhaps if there had been a different conductor in the pit it might have convinced more. I found Stephen Lord’s laboured and flaccid conducting routine. I would have liked to have heard much more rhythmic precision and drive. The scene with Ulrica for example sagged quite significantly. This is music of great passion but it didn’t often feel that way in Lord’s hands. We were rewarded by very good playing from the house orchestra and some rich singing from Sandra Horst’s chorus.

The singing on the other hand was excellent. Yelena Manistina’s Ulrica was perhaps the only slight disappointment. The voice sounded forced and the chest register not quite was rich as I remember hearing it. She was competent enough but I was expecting more after her fine Azucena in Munich last year. The supporting roles were very well taken especially Simone Osborne’s Oscar who here was portrayed as a young woman artist. She delivered ‘volta la terrea’ with aplomb, the coloratura expertly dispatched with pinpoint accuracy.

Dimitri Pittas was an interesting Riccardo. The role sounds a size too big for him and there were times (such as the act 2 duet with Amelia) where the strain was quite audible. He is one of nature’s Ducas or Nemorinos rather than a Riccardo. That said, the Italianate warmth in the sound was quite wonderful and he has the essence of the style. I very much hope he doesn’t do the role too often and certainly not in a large house.

Roland Wood was a big surprise for me. I had known him as a Mozart baritone at ENO but here he gave a highly creditable Verdi baritone performance. Indeed, his sound reminded me of Sherrill Milnes. It’s a grainy voice in many ways but he also has a true legato and awareness of Verdian phraseology that is deeply impressive. ‘Eri tu’ was a real highlight of the show, the line strong and the performance captivating, drawing the viewer directly into Renato’s situation. It was only ruined by some idiots who decided to ‘bravo’ loudly before the music had finished completely ruining the mood that Wood had worked so hard to create. I know that there are times when one would really like to show appreciation for a performance but surely showing appreciation is also respecting the fact that an artist has worked really hard to create an introspective mood and that one should wait for the music to completely finish before applauding.

And then there was Pieczonka. She is perhaps not a conventional Verdi soprano – the tone might lack the ultimate richness at the top of the very greatest and intonation sagged at times – but she is an outstanding one. She sang with generous phrasing and genuine feeling that was so captivating. ‘Ecco l’orrido campo’ was a perfect example the generosity and honesty of her singing and ‘morrò, ma prima in grazia’ displayed a glorious warmth and generosity of feeling that was just wonderful. She is a remarkable artist and I am so happy to have finally had the opportunity to hear her sing in Italian.

Ultimately this was a bit of a mixed afternoon. There was much to enjoy but also much that left me cold. It was undoubtedly worth the journey for Pieczonka and Wood alone.

 

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Don Giovanni in Images

Mozart – Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni – Mariusz Kwiecień

Leporello – Alex Esposito

Donna Anna – Malin Byström

Donna Elvira – Véronique Gens

Don Ottavio – Antonio Poli

Zerlina – Elizabeth Watts

Masetto – Dawid Kimberg

Commendatore – Alexander Tsymbalyuk

Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Nicola Luisotti.

Stage Director – Kasper Holten.

Royal Opera House, London.  February 1st, 2014.

When the cast for this particular production of Don Giovanni was announced I knew immediately that I had to go. After all, getting to see four favourite singers on the same stage is an irresistible opportunity, so much so that I booked not only for the show itself but also for the Insights evening where the creative team presented the new production.  Indeed, the Insights evening was quite illuminating in discovering more about Kasper Holten’s view of the work.  The previous production of Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House was by Francesca Zambello and I really was not a fan.  I found it vacuous, dreary and lacking in imagination.  The only other example of Holten’s work that I have seen live, his Yevgeny Onegin also at the Royal Opera House, completely polarized the audience between those who loved it and those who thought it messy and unfocussed.  I have to admit that I was in the latter camp despite clearly being able to see that a lot of thought had gone into it.  Given Don Giovanni’s reputation as a director’s graveyard I approached the show tonight with some trepidation.

Taken at face value, it was a highly enjoyable evening in the theatre.  It didn’t present any particular new insights, but it played to the gallery as entertainment.  Part of the problem with Holten’s Onegin was that it contained a massive gimmick that distracted from the singers.  Tonight instead of having dancers flail around distracting from the singing we had video.  It was used to signpost relevant information such as the names of Giovanni’s conquests or imagery relevant to the scene in question.  It was indeed distracting on occasion as if to draw attention from the singers but on other occasions (such as the swirling during the champagne aria or when it changed Leporello’s costume to match Giovanni’s) it was quite interesting.  It seemed a little inconsistent in its application though but it was certainly novel.  I also found that the first 20 minutes felt a little slow (under-rehearsed?).  It was only when Véronique Gens’ peerless Elvira entered that the show started to move up a gear with Kwiecień’s Giovanni and Esposito’s Leporello feeding off of the energy.  I was also a bit worried that the Commendatore would have to spend the entire evening on the floor after being murdered (Holten has form in this of course) but fortunately, he was whisked away quickly on the moving platform.  The main idea of the production was that Giovanni was tired of his life of seduction and needed the ultimate challenge of death to keep things interesting.  The problem was that the over-reliance on the video betrayed a lack of Personenregie with characters who seemed to barely relate to each other.  The more experienced performers were able to transcend this but some others left less of an impression.  Ultimately, it felt like a great ‘show’ but it lacked humanity.

The set (Es Devlin) revolved around constantly representing various means for the spectators to view different angles of the action.  Interesting also that Leporello clearly wanted to kill Giovanni at the end of Act 1 and that Anna may well have been complicit in the murder at the beginning.  Unfortunately, I feel that Holten completely fluffed the ending with a horrific cut. He decided to cut from the end of the dinner scene to the very end of the epilogue with the other characters singing from the pit.  This made no musical sense and also meant that we were deprived the tonal journey that Mozart intended us to take.  His rationale for this – as he mentioned at the Insights evening – is that the epilogue goes on a bit too long and seems to make little dramatic sense.  Yet I think there he misses the point.  The epilogue serves not only to tie up the histories of the other characters dramatically but also musically, giving the audience a chance to move from the horror that is the dinner scene to the bright and cheerful D major of the closing bars.  This is why when it is cut in the Vienna version it always feels like such a loss.  Tonight’s ‘solution’ was to me to completely unmusical and highly unsatisfying.

With regards to the singing, however, there was so much to enjoy in a cast where at least three of the singers are amongst the very finest exponents of their roles today.

The best singing came from Véronique Gens’ stunning Elvira. She was the only principal to demonstrate a complete understanding of the Mozartian style and it was outstanding.  Her set pieces were beautifully ornamented and all sung with a richness of tone that was beguiling.  Her ‘mi tradi’ was spectacular (I closed my eyes to the video just to appreciate it), the breath control endless, the line ornamented to perfection and a wonderful use of dynamics.  ‘Ah chi mi dice mai’ used the ornamentation to wonderfully illuminate Elvira’s mental state as portrayed in the music.  After her stunning Mme Lidoine in Paris in December, it is clear that Gens is at her absolute peak.  A remarkable artist.

In Holten’s conception of the work, Giovanni is made to seem an impatient brute who completely throws himself into everything and Mariusz Kwiecień fully entered into the sprit of the staging.  Regrettably it meant that he had to frequently sacrifice tonal beauty, as in the champagne aria which was sung as if by a frustrated addict looking for his next fix.  Fortunately, when given the opportunity to do so, he was able to pull out that wonderful bronzed legato that makes his singing of bel canto so special as in a glorious ‘la ci darem’ and a nicely introspective serenade.  By the finale he was quite simply incredible, as if finally throwing off the shackles of the staging, he delivered a final scene that was so thrilling it had me at the edge of my seat.  He gave everything he had to it and the effect was completely gripping.  I would very much like to see him perform the part again in a staging that actually penetrates the heart of the work.

Alex Esposito repeated his world-famous Leporello proving why he is indeed one of the finest exponents of the role around. He brought real textual awareness, impeccable diction and wonderfully fluid vocalism.  His catalogue aria was showstopping.  He also gamely entered into the spirit of the production and struck real sparks off of his relationship with Giovanni.

Malin Byström offered a big, bold attractive voice as Donna Anna.  I imagine she is headed to a different repertoire but the sound in itself was impressive and she blended beautifully with Gens in the ensembles.  The voice loses a little colour at the very top and she had a tendency to oversing in the big moments, such as ‘or sai chi l’onore’, which meant that pitch wasn’t always accurate.  It may well have been nerves though and hopefully she will relax over the rest of the run.  She is undoubtedly an exciting talent.

The same could be said of Antonio Poli’s Ottavio.  He has the core of a really beautiful voice yet the top was pinched and some of the lines were not quite as sustained as well as they could have been.  He made a real effort to sing quietly in ‘dalla sua pace’.  If the voice isn’t quite there yet he is still very young, has real promise and will hopefully mature into a very interesting artist.

Elizabeth Watts offered us a vivacious and fluently sung Zerlina with a deliciously tender ‘vedrai carino’.  Dawid Kimberg was a decent enough Masetto and Alexander Tsymbalyuk, who so impressed me in Boris in Munich last year, gave us a fabulously large and rich Commendatore but was also quite woolly and tremulous.  Again, this may have been nerves.  The Chorus offered the usual wobbles and lack of unanimity of sound that we have come to expect at this address.

I loved Nicola Luisotti’s conducting of Nabucco at the Royal Opera in April 2013 and thought it one of the best examples of Verdi conducting I have ever heard.  I had high hopes then for his Mozart and while I admire the fact that tempi never seemed to sag too much, I can’t say it was my tasse de thé.  Indeed, the overwhelming image I had was of someone negotiating a Bentley through a narrow alleyway.  The strings played with full vibrato and tempi were on occasion (such as the start of the overture or in ‘vedrai carino’) to my taste incredibly slow.  I missed a crispness of attack, wit and sense of the drama running to its inevitable conclusion that made say Gardiner’s Figaro in this same house so memorable last October.  I also wonder what really was the point of having both a fortepiano and a harpsichord in the recitatives.  I recall in the Insights evening that the point was to demonstrate audibly the difference between the ‘modern’ Giovanni and the ‘traditional’ rest of the cast.  The problem was that the result was audibly messy.  I imagine that Luisotti was also complicit in that awful cut to the final ensemble.  As I said, I loved his Verdi and would really like to see him conduct more but on the evidence of this Don Giovanni, I can’t say I feel the same way about his Mozart.

Ultimately this Don Giovanni is a highly entertaining evening in the theatre and is an improvement on the Royal Opera’s previous production.  The problem is that this is achieved by over-reliance on technology, which distracts from some outstanding performances.  This seems to reflect an unwillingness on Holten’s part to engage with his singers and use them to drive the drama forward.  It won’t, I fear, despite its best intentions make one re-evaluate the work.  It does offer some great singing and is certainly worth listening to.  Ultimately it’s a crowd-pleaser and taken at face value has much to offer but once one starts to question it, the façade begins to crumble.

UPDATE 2014/02/03: Tonight I saw the show again. I have to say musically it felt much more settled. The overture actually showed the kind of drive and vigour that I loved in Luisotti’s Verdi and the strings even started with minimal vibrato which was great but had a poor effect on the intonation and they quickly returned to full cream vibrato-rich weak-attack playing. Tempi also returned to the Bentley-like stateliness we had on Saturday but I did appreciate some more raspiness in the brass. As far as the singing was concerned, I really do like Malin Byström – the sound is glorious but the intonation issues were still there. I wish she would just relax a little, the voice is a good size and she doesn’t need to push it. Gens was again fantastic, I can’t think that I have ever heard a better ‘mi tradi’ and it’s worth the price of the ticket alone. Esposito was superb but the evening belonged to Kwiecień. He was able to tone down the aggression asked of him by Holten’s staging and the champagne aria was quite simply perfectly done tonight. The serenade also showed that warmth of tone that is his trademark. Again, the final scene was incredibly, powerful, edge of the seat stuff dramatically and vocally and I saw in him tonight the greatness that I spotted in his King Roger in Bilbao back in 2012. Incredible. Fortunately, I have plans to see one more performance before the end of the run.

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Wit, Pathos and Perfection

Cavalli – La Calisto

La Natura / Satirino / Le Furie – Dominique Visse
L’Eternità / Giunone – Karina Gauvin
Il Destino / Diana / Le Furie – Anna Bonitatibus
Giove – Luca Tittoto
Mercurio – Nikolay Borchev
Calisto – Danielle de Niese
Endimione – Tim Mead
Linfea – Emiliano González Toro
Pane – Mathias Vidal
Silvano – Tareq Nazmi

Bayerisches Staatsorchester, Monteverdi-Continuo-Ensemble der Bayerischen Staatsoper / Ivor Bolton.
Stage Director – David Alden

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Sunday, January 12th, 2014.

I first saw this production of La Calisto at the Royal Opera House a few years ago. It was my first introduction to Cavalli’s work and it struck me as one of the most engaging and entertaining pieces of theatre I have ever seen. Tonight, the impressions were similar but it seemed to be even more strongly cast than in London with an outstanding group of singer-actors all of whom gave of their very best. In a way, it was a perfect partner for that historic Forza of last night.

Where Alden succeeds in his staging is in the element of fantasy inherent in the story. It is set in some fantastical 1960s-inspired nightclub where gods, nymphs and mortals meet. There are so many wonderfully arresting stage pictures – the entry of Giunone from an elevator, Calisto as a lounge singer, the fountain as a water cooler – it really does show the mark of a great mind. The action is constantly buzzing and the hours fly by. The action was completely fluid and the singers all gamely entered into the spirit of things. It is a fabulous romp with all manner of different sexual combinations and incredibly great fun. Yet there is also great pathos – such as in Endimione and Calisto’s arias.

The singing was at the very highest level. Danielle De Niese is known as a great actress and the role of Calisto suited her to perfection dramatically. Vocally she was very good a slight tension in the tone at first quickly disappeared and apart from a few passing intonation issues she acquitted herself with distinction. In a way this is the kind of role she was born to sing and she was indeed very fine. Anna Bonitatibus has an exceptional voice and was a wonderfully engaging stage presence as Diana. The voice is rich with an ease throughout the range and a beautifully warm, rounded tone. She also brought fantastic textual awareness finding a perfect symbiosis between text and music. She also blended well with Karina Gauvin in various roles. Her Giunone was sensational, sung with a richness and spark that was striking. As always with Karina, the technique was staggering but what I really drew from her performance tonight was the richness and warmth of tone.

Tonight was the first time I heard Tim Mead live and he also struck by the sheer beauty of tone of his counter-tenor. There was an evenness of tone and beauty of line that was simply ravishing. Definitely a voice to watch. Another striking new talent to me was Luca Tittoto as Giove with a liquid, sonorous bass and genuine sumptuousness of tone. He tired a little towards the end but this is also a very promising talent. The veteran Dominique Visse was simply fabulous as Satirino singing with wit and accuracy as did Emiliano González Toro as a terrifically bawdy Linfea. There were also highly enjoyable performances in smaller roles from Mathias Vidal, Tareq Nazmi and Nikolay Borchev.

Ivor Bolton directed a reading of great fluency and the work was paced to perfection. The band played with spellbinding warmth and wit. It would be impossible to imagine it better played or directed.

This was a wonderful evening in the theatre, dramatically outstanding, beautifully sung played and directed and introduced me to some major new talent. It was also a real ensemble production with a cast of singer-actors and a group of musicians who worked together to perfection. Outstanding.


Greatness

Verdi – la Forza del Destino.

Leonora – Anja Harteros
Don Carlo – Ludovic Tézier
Alvaro – Jonas Kaufmann
Il Marchese di Calatrava/Padre Guardiano – Vitalij Kowaljow
Preziosilla – Nadia Krasteva
Fra Melitone – Renato Girolami
Curra – Heike Grötzinger

Chor und Extrachor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Asher Fisch
Stage Director – Martin Kušej

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Saturday, January 11th, 2014.

Last year I saw greatness on the stage of the Royal Opera House. In Don Carlo Anja Harteros just blew me away as Elisabetta. I later saw her in the same role in Berlin and those first impressions in London were reinforced. Here was the real thing one of the greatest ever Verdi sopranos. Tonight she did not disappoint, rather she reinforced her position amongst the greats. I feel so humbled to have witnessed greatness.

Before discussing the performance and since this blog is about opera and travel, I should add a word about the Bayerische Staatsoper. Their booking system is somewhat archaic. The best way to secure seats for the show one desires is to apply via their website for what they describe as ‘postal booking’ rather than waiting for internet booking to open (which is does 2 months before). If one selects postal booking one then receives either an email offering alternative seats or a refusal of the request or the tickets in the mail around three months before the show. I can’t say it’s my favourite way of booking for shows but I did manage to get tickets for all of the shows I applied for there. Tonight my seat was decent enough and offered around 60% visibility of the stage. Unfortunately, for most of the show I had much less because my neighbour insisted on leaning forward completely blocking my view, using her purse as a cushion to push herself forward. Unfortunately my requests auf Deutsch to her to not to do that fell on deaf ears. This means that unfortunately, I cannot give a detailed critique of the staging. What I did see was inoffensive enough – although I’m sure that the Act 3 orgy had a few reaching for the blood pressure medication. It seemed to have been set during the Bosnian war. Costumes were modern and reflected the late 90s. I can’t really say more.

The singing however was simply out of this world. Anja Harteros is quite simply greatness personified. She sang with incredible, theatre-filling amplitude, pearly tone and a glorious sense of line. Initially I found the pearly tone lacking a little warmth yet in ‘pace, pace’ she sang with glorious generosity and a perfectly floated top. ‘Madre pietosa vergine’ was just wonderful and culminated in a perfectly floated ‘vergine degli angeli’. There was a slight tendency to sing sharp at the start of the evening but as she relaxed she simply hit new heights of greatness. ‘Historic’ is an oft-used word but I think that it quite simply encapsulates all that La Harteros achieved tonight. Spellbinding.

If the evening had consisted of Harteros alone it would have been very special. Yet she was matched by a tenor and a baritone who matched her in greatness. I first came across Ludovic Tézier as an outstanding Chorèbe for Gardiner a decade again. His voice has developed immeasurably and tonight he sang a sensational Don Carlo. The voice has grown in amplitude and is easily produced. It carries very well through the theatre and shows no sense of strain or wobble even in the highest registers and at the loudest volumes. In short, he is the real thing: a dramatic Verdi baritone of distinction. I would very much like to hear him in the key Verdi roles – Jago, Macbeth and Amonasro for example. Yet at no point did he sacrifice beauty of tone.

Jonas Kaufmann’s Alvaro similarly hit greatness. I was not convinced by his Don Carlo at the Royal Opera last year but tonight he blew me away. The timbre isn’t the brightest but his ardent, ruby-red tone showed exceptional technical accomplishment. This was a voice that was entirely under the control of its owner and it was stunning. The way he could leap up an octave and produce a sudden diminuendo, the endless reserves of power – it was wonderful. Occasionally an intrusive aspirate disturbed but make no mistake, this was Verdi tenor singing of the very highest quality the likes of which are extremely rare today. He was exceptional.

The supporting cast was headed by Vitalij Kowaljow’s rich Padre Guardiano and Marchese. Nadia Krasteva’s fruity Preziosilla was also an asset, dispatching her arias with precision and aplomb. The chorus seemed to be a completely different body to the chorus I heard in Onegin last night. They sang with excellent blend and precision singing ‘rataplan’ lying on their backs on stage yet never sacrificing unanimity of ensemble. Impressive.

I heard some exceptional Verdi conducting last year from Nicola Luisotti and Paolo Arrivabeni. Unfortunately Asher Fisch wasn’t in the same league. It was certainly competent but it was also uninspiring. The edges were all smoothed out and there was a lack of rhythmic energy that was somewhat tedious. That said, it didn’t quite feel as episodic as some other conductors’ Verdi I have heard and he certainly managed to keep his forces together.

This was one of those nights in the theatre that was simply unforgettable. It offered singing from there exceptional principals at the very peak of their powers. I feel exceptionally privileged to have been there.

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Cowboy Onegin

Tchaikovsky – Yevgeny Onegin

Tatyana – Kristine Opolais
Olga – Yekaterina Sergeeva
Larina – Heike Grötzinger
Filippyevna – Larissa Diadkova
Lensky – Edgaras Montvidas
Yevgeny Onegin – Artur Rucinski
Captain – Leonard Bernad
Triquet – Kevin Conners
Zaretski – Rafal Siwek
Prince Gremin – Rafal Siwek

Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Kirill Petrenko.
Stage director – Krzysztof Warlikowski

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Friday, January 10th, 2014

This was my fourth Yevgeny Onegin in the space of two years and the one problem with seeing the same piece relatively frequently is that comparisons inevitably form however much one does not necessarily wish to do so. This particular staging comes with a reputation for being the ‘Brokeback’ Onegin and indeed in many ways with sets and costumes reflecting the rural US of the 1970s it seems to inhabit a similar visual aesthetic to that celebrated movie. I have also heard that reaction to the staging has been somewhat polarized and I’m sure that those who go expecting a flavour of the Russian countryside and imperial St Petersburg will be disappointed. Yet by going with an open mind, it does actually prove to be a gripping evening in the theatre.

The premise that Warlikowski leads from is that Onegin – and to a lesser extent Lensky – are closeted and denying their sexuality. By doing this he may in fact be being completely true to a way that Tchaikovsky saw his work although the truth is we will never know. Moving the action to the rural US also results in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the village being evoked very well. The show opens with Tatyana & Olga singing their duet into microphones and line dancing. Onegin clearly has no patience for Tatyana’s reading – tearing up her book as she reads it – and he seems an absolute bore. Tatyana records her letter on a cassette tape and desperately holds on to Onegin as he rejects her. The name day party (here staged as a birthday) is where things start to get moving. Onegin is made to seem a bully – blowing out the candles on the cake, insisting on dancing with Olga until she dances with Tatyana. Interestingly Onegin dances with Lensky and I wonder whether I did in fact see them kiss before violently pulling apart. The duel scene is set in a bedroom, both men fully clothed trying to make sense of what they are about to do. Zaretski lays a gun on the pillow and Lensky starts to undress as if to have sex with Onegin when Onegin picks up the gun and shoots him dead. The Polonaise is set as the dance of semi-clothed cowboys while Onegin tries to block out the images from his mind. Later the cowboys appear in drag as if to taunt him. Zaretski dresses up and becomes Gremin and he seems to have a fetish for Tatyana’s legs. The final scene was absolutely gripping with Tatyana and Onegin initially making out until she realizes what she has done and slaps him and runs away. There’s a fair bit of description here I know but I have to say that it was an entirely convincing staging. The only part that I found questionable was that I didn’t quite get a sense of who the villagers were and what their relationship with Larina was. Perhaps there was something in the German surtitles but I didn’t follow them since I know the piece so well.

Vocally, the evening was a bit mixed. The stand-out performance came from Edgaras Montvidas as Lensky. With an ardent red-wine tone he seemed to be completely at home in the language. His ‘kuda, kuda?’ was devastating and included a stunning mezza voce. He seemed tireless and had a real warmth and sense of line to his singing that none of his cast mates could quite match. It started quite well with Larissa Diadkova’s wholly idiomatic Filippyevna and Heike Grötzinger’s fluent Larina. I was also struck by the rich and warm tones of Yekaterina Sergeeva’s lively Olga. Yet Kristine Opolais ultimately didn’t move me as I was hoping. She is a fabulous actress without a doubt but her chalky voice lacked colour and towards the end she was often south of the note. I enjoyed her attention to the text but I wanted more warmth and tonal glamour in her singing. The voice also seemed a size smaller than I remembered it when she sang Tosca at the Royal Opera and I wonder whether she was in fact unwell although no announcement was made. Artur Rucinski’s Onegin also lacked the warmth and legato of other interpreters. It’s an interesting voice with a strong steely tone but also lacking in variety and there seemed to be no effort to manipulate the line and make the notes mean more than a sequence of sounds. He is young and there is a decent voice there and I hope that he grows as an interpreter. I usually look forward to Monsieur Triquet’s interjections. Sadly tonight, I couldn’t understand a word although the couplets were beautifully sung.

Kirill Petrenko led his forces in a frustratingly variable reading. The chorus was frequently behind the beat and the men in particular lacked blend. The opening chorus and the waltz were horribly out of sync between pit and stage. The Polonaise for example was paced well but the waltz was heavy and hesitant. Several sections dragged horribly and there was some sour intonation in the strings on occasion. The final scene just failed to soar in the way that it should and perhaps in turn this exemplified what was wrong with the performance. The lack of phrasing and concentrating on creating a musical line may well have come from the pit. At the same time, there was real sensitivity in the way that Lensky’s aria was accompanied for example.

This was indeed a frustrating evening. Tchaikovsky might have written his work for students but it is a very difficult piece to pull off. While I really enjoyed the staging, Montvidas’ Lensky and some of the supporting roles, I’m afraid the other principals and the conducting disappointed. I do hope that the production is revived next season with a different cast, I would very much like to see it again.

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Exquisite Magic

Massenet – Cendrillon.

Pandolfe – Laurent Naouri
Madame de la Haltière – Ewa Podleś
Noémie – Cristina Obregón
Dorothée – Marisa Martins
Lucette – Joyce DiDonato
La Fée – Annick Massis
Le Surintendant – Toni Marsol
Le Doyen – Jordi Casanova
Le Premier ministre – Manel Esteve Madrid
Le Prince charmant – Alice Coote
Le Roi – Isaac Galán

Cor del Gran Teatre del Liceu, Orquestra Simfònica del Gran Teatre del Liceu / Andrew Davis.
Stage Director – Laurent Pelly.

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona. Monday, December 30th, 2013.

I have mentioned before in this blog that Joyce Di Donato is an artist who just when it seems she is at her peak just gets better and better. Tonight was no exception. That she was part of an ensemble cast with no weak link might sound like a cliché but that was most certainly the case and the cumulative effect was overwhelming. It was simply one of those evenings where as each one of the principals entered, they raised the bar higher and higher.

I had previously seen this staging with a very similar cast at the Royal Opera House back in 2011. Laurent Naouri was a major change to the cast and it must be said an extremely positive one. His singing was wholly idiomatic – as was the entire cast’s, no surtitles were necessary – and his richness of tone was of great advantage in the role. La Podleś is a force of nature and so she was tonight. Her chest register is a thing of wonder as is her gloriously fruity tone and she gamely fully entered into the spirit of the production. She is quite simply a phenomenon. Cristina Obregón and Marisa Martins sparkled in the roles of Noémie and Dorothée, great comic timing and real vocal personality certainly delivered the goods.

Then there was Massis as la Fée. She is a wonderful singer with an effortless top and easy coloratura. What I loved about her is that despite the vocal fireworks, one could still understand every single word. A slight tendency to sing on the sharp side of notes might have disturbed some but I found her to be wonderful. Alice Coote offered ardent and warm singing as the Prince with a beautiful sense of line, her rich tone contrasting nicely with Di Donato’s.

Joyce gave another outstanding performance. For me, she was even finer than she was at Covent Garden because tonight her singing married text and music in the most wonderful way. The way she invested her lines with feeling, the highlighting of words and individual phrases was just glorious. Her first aria ‘reste au foyer, petit grillon’ was a perfect example of how to simply let the music speak by shading of text and music. The repetition of ‘vous êtes mon prince charmant’ in Act 2 had a warmth and a yearning that could melt even the hardest of hearts. I have seen Joyce give some stunning performances over the years – starting with the first time I saw her as Cenerentola in this very theatre – but this may well be the finest I have heard from her. It was sensational.

Andrew Davis solicited playing of great richness and finesse from the Liceu orchestra. It was also paced to perfection in a work that can be inclined to drag. He wasn’t afraid to relax and take things slowly but he seemed to always have an overview over the entire piece so that any longueurs there might have been were brief. The chorus had a very good night. There’s not much that can be said about the staging given that I had seen it before but it was certainly exercised with great fluency even if the sets were a bit noisy.

This was an exquisite end to a wonderful year of opera. I was saddened to see many empty seats – mostly in the highest price categories – as this was one of the best shows I have seen at the Liceu. It was simply one of those evenings where everything came together to create magic.

 

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That Was the Year that Was: 2013 in Review

If 2012 was one of the best years for music, opera and concert-going that I have had then 2013 was not only even better but also provided so many wonderful memories that will linger for a very long time.  I got to renew my acquaintance with so many wonderful artists, discover new talents, return to some of my favourite works but also get to hear works that I had previously only heard on record.  It was, without doubt, a spectacularly good year.

In a way, this year represented three things – seeing exciting new talent, hearing outstanding existing talent in their absolute prime and watching favourite artists move on to the next stage of their careers.  It started unpromisingly enough with a dreary Lucia at the Deutsche Oper but quickly improved with an exquisite Komische Oper Rosenkavalier and an outstanding Karlsruhe Troyens.  In both I discovered some sensational new talent in the South African soprano Johanni van Oostrum, Polish mezzo Karolina Gumos, American soprano Heidi Melton and Mexican tenor Eleazar Rodríguez (who later in the year sang an impressive Tonio also in Karlsruhe).  Other young singers who impressed this year included Sophie Bevan as WNO’s Vixen, Ana Quintans and Henk Neven in the Amsterdam Armide, Jennifer Johnston as Jocasta with the LSO, Maria Agresta in the Paris Puritani  and Russell Thomas in Don Carlo at the Deutsche Oper.  All are highly promising artists who are very much the real thing and I very much look forward to having the opportunity of hearing them again very soon.

Before concentrating on the wonderful, I should mention a few disappointments.  One would most certainly be Verdi’s Vêpres siciliennes at the Royal Opera.  While I did hear that it improved over the run, it was – when I saw it – disappointingly conducted, staged in a way that was inaccessible to large sections of the audience in seats on certain sides of the auditorium and the singing could be charitably described as a mixed bag.  Robin Ticciati’s conducting of Yevgeny Onegin at the Royal Opera at the head of a band that was on quite unfortunate form was also a disappointment but that evening was redeemed by some thrilling singing by Krassimira Stoyanova, Simon Keenlyside and especially, Pavol Breslík. Indeed, Breslík gave an object lesson in how to sing a role that was a size too big without forcing and never compromising beauty of tone.  Sadly Philippe Jordan’s conducting of Elektra in Paris failed to rise to the occasion despite his outstanding orchestra.  Daniele Abbado’s staging of Nabucco also at the Royal Opera was also a major disappointment despite being sensationally conducted by Nicola Luisotti – probably the best Verdi conducting I have heard in London, if not anywhere in years – and some extremely fine singing from Liudmila Monastyrska.

Getting to travel and see new cities is always a highlight and this year I got to see Oslo and its magnificent opera house for the very first time.  A far too brief visit to Aix-en-Provence inspired me to re-visit and I will certainly be keeping an eye on tickets for next year.  I also enjoyed non-operatic trips to Lisbon and Copenhagen two cities I would definitely like to see again. Perhaps the most memorable opera trip that I did this year was to New York for Yevgeny Onegin at the Met.  The show itself was mixed – laboured conducting and some troubled singing from some artists combined with outstanding singing from others.  I very much enjoyed Mariusz Kwiecien’s Onegin and he was also part of one of the most musically satisfying evenings I had this year – the Don Carlo at the Royal Opera.  His Posa had all that I love in his singing, the warm line, endless breath-control and beauty of tone.  The big confrontation with Feruccio Furlanetto’s Filippo and his big scene with ‘per me giuntò’ were two of the most gripping things I have seen this year. He was joined by the exceptional soprano of Anja Harteros who proved why she is one of the leading Verdi sopranos of today – she was in short, sensational.  Her pearly tone effortlessly filled the auditorium, phrasing was impeccable and the style was spot-on.  Only Antonio Pappano’s episodic conducting disappointed.  I was lucky enough to see la Harteros twice, later in Berlin with an excellent cast and with much more fluent conducting from Donald Runnicles.

I was also lucky to see Kwiecien at the Paris Opéra as Riccardo in Puritani where, singing while sick, he demonstrated exactly how having an outstanding technique is essential to ensuring a successful career.  For me a singer who also combines an impeccable technique with great vocal beauty is Karina Gauvin.  I have been a big fan of Karina’s for years and have seen her a number of times in recital, in concert and in concert performances of opera.  Until this year, I had never seen her in a fully-staged production and this year she sang the title role in a visually ravishing production of Armide at the Nederlandse Opera.  It is of great regret to me to know that it was not filmed because this was one of the most visually stunning stagings I have seen.  Yet it was not just that, musically it was also at the very highest level.  Karina sang as part of an outstanding cast and the show was conducted with distinction by Ivor Bolton.

This year I also got to see three productions by a stage director who I think is the best in the world – Calixto Bieito.  I know that he has so many detractors but in his work I see a touch of genius, someone able to illuminate a piece in a way few other directors can.  His Boris Godunov in Munich was superb and his Fidelio for ENO left me unable to speak with emotion.  Sadly his Oslo Contes d’Hoffmann, despite some fine performances, seemed like a work in progress rather than the finished article.  I still found it unbearably moving at the end and most certainly a work of genius, but it didn’t feel like it had been completely finalized in the way that his shows normally do.

There was a time, not so long ago, that people said that there were no ladies capable of singing Elektra around any more.  Well this year, I got to see three and all of them were in their own ways wonderful.  The late Patrice Chéreau’s staging in Aix didn’t quite convince me in the way that it did others but there was no doubt that it showed the mark of a great mind and it was meticulously rehearsed.  It also benefitted from Adrianne Pieczonka’s glorious Chrysothemis.  In a way it seems cruel to compare three exceptional exponents of such a difficult role but for me, Evelyn Herlitzius just blew me away.  Simply incredible.  The voice seemed absolutely massive, just super-human in size, but it was used with an intelligence that was remarkable.  Iréne Theorin and Christine Goerke offered different yet complementary portrayals – both have fast vibratos but Theroin’s bright soprano contrasted with Goerke’s more mezzo-ish hues.  Both were exceptional in their own ways but for me Herlitzius was hors concours – a force of nature with a voice that seems to come from some different dimension.

This year also allowed me to reacquaint myself with Juan Diego Flórez who seemed to struggle in Pêcheurs in Madrid but who excelled in Donna del Lago at the Royal Opera.  That show was somewhat messily staged but gloriously sung by Daniela Barcellona, Michael Spyers and especially by Joyce Di Donato who sang the role like it had been written for her.  La Donna del lago is one of those works that I hadn’t previously had the opportunity to see on stage and another for me this year was Lulu in WNO’s superb staging.  It was one of those evenings where absolutely everything came together – the singing, orchestral playing and conducting – to produce an absolutely gripping experience. Both the Royal Opera and ENO responded by offering two complementary yet equally relevant productions of Wozzeck.  The ENO offered the more interesting staging, the Royal Opera’s the stronger sung and conducted.

There was a lot of Verdi for me this year in his anniversary year.  I was deeply impressed by Johan Reuter’s Nabucco at the Deutsche Oper offering singing that offered a masterclass in stylistic awareness and how to use one’s instrument to its best advantage.  A València Otello benefitted from Gregory Kunde’s fully Italianate and vocally effortless assumption of the title role and that theatre’s glorious chorus.  Then there were those two Don Carlos that renewed my love of that splendid work.  The latter had the thrilling Eboli of Violeta Urmana and she also thrilled in the other anniversary boy, Wagner’s, Tristan  that I saw at the Wiener Staatsoper.  There she simply owned the role and was thrilling.  While the voice might have lost the freshness it once had, she has grown enormously as an interpreter and she commanded the stage magnificently.  She also offered singing of glorious tonal beauty.  The Tristan was combined on the same trip with a Rinaldo that was also thrillingly sung – not least by Karina and Franco Fagioli – and also introduced me to a major new talent in Xavier Sabata

I didn’t attend that many orchestral concerts this year – this year I didn’t see the Berliner Philharmoniker at the Philharmonie as I usually do but I did see some quite spectacular ones, not least the opportunity to hear Antheil’s Ballet mécanique live performed by the Aurora Orchestra who also offered a terrific performance of a chamber version of Mahler 1 combined with a fantastic collaboration with a klezmer band in the same concert.  The Aurora also gave me one of the best Beethoven 7s I have ever heard.  From the opening chords, it provided an irresistible physical energy that had me hooked.  There was also a superbly sung Oedipus Rex from the LSO and two Beethoven piano concertos beautifully played by Angela Hewitt and the Britten Sinfonia.  Getting to see Alex Esposito in a solo recital at the Wigmore Hall was a real treat as was Véronique Gens’ concert of melodies with Temple Music.  Gens was also present in an outstandingly-cast Dialogues des Carmélites in Paris.  If the staging didn’t quite convince ultimately and left me somewhat cold, nobody could dispute that it was sensationally sung by singers who may well be the finest exponents of the roles today.  I was really impressed by Sabine Devieilhe and Rosalind Plowright but especially so by Gens who sang with an ease and richness that were glorious.

In this year of outstanding doubles and triples, it is fitting to conclude with recalling experiencing two incredible performances of one of my very favourite works, in the same week.  Le Nozze di Figaro is very possibly my desert island opera and I was so unbelievably lucky to hear two extraordinary performances a few days apart.  The first was conducted by John Eliot Gardiner at the Royal Opera. It benefitted from the peerless Figaro of Luca Pisaroni and the delicious Susanna of Lucy Crowe.  Gardiner elicited some of the best playing I have ever heard from the Royal Opera Orchestra – vibrato-free strings, swift tempi and pristine articulation combined to provide a wonderful evening. And yet a few days later, I got to hear a Figaro that was unforgettable.  René Jacobs conducted a Freiburger Barockorchester at the very peak of its powers in a reading that had irrepressible physical energy, wit and beauty.  It was well cast, in the ladies especially so, with a superb Susanna from Sophie Karthäuser, stunning Countess from Rosemary Joshua and a Cherubino from Annett Fritsch who sang his arias as if she had written them.

There are many more shows that I saw this year that I haven’t even had the space to begin discussing here.  Not including them doesn’t mean that I didn’t appreciate them, it’s just there’s no way to include absolutely everything.  Looking into 2014 I have a Forza in Munich with La Harteros and Kaufmann as well as a Calisto with Karina to look forward to. I also have a Ballo in Toronto with Pieczonka, an Onegin with Kwiecien in Vienna and a Munich Rosenkavalier with Isokoski and Coote to look forward to.  Not to mention an incredibly-cast Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera with a cast including Kwieicen, Esposito, Gens, Elizabeth Watts and conducted by Luisiotti. If his Mozart is anywhere near as good as his Verdi, then this promises to be an amazing evening.  2013 had so many amazing moments, 2014 looks like it may have many more.

All that remains is for me to wish you the very best for 2014 and for many more wonderful operatic, musical and opera travelling experiences for all.  Bonne année à tous!


The Living Masterpiece

Bach – Mass in B Minor

Malin Christensson (sop),
Jennifer Johnston (mez),
William Towers (counter-tenor),
Joshua Ellicott (ten),
Benedict Nelson (bar),

Choir of Clare College Cambridge (prepared by Graham Ross)
Aurora Orchestra / Nicholas Collon

Hall One, Kings Place, London. Saturday, December 21st, 2013.

The Aurora Orchestra is one of the most innovative bands operating on the UK music scene today. They bring a freshness and quality to everything they do. I try to get to all of their shows when I can. Unfortunately, I don’t tend to write about them as the shows I often end up writing about are those I see when travelling and I usually use the time I have while waiting for flights to write, whereas in London, real life usually gets in the way, and I don’t have as much time as I would like to write. I do however tweet about all of the shows I see. Aurora’s concert of Boulez, Ives and Beethoven 7 will certainly go down as one of the best of 2013 – the Beethoven in particular was incredibly good, the kind of Beethoven that grabs you from the opening chords and runs with an irresistible, physical energy right until the very end. I very much hope that they will do more Beethoven as time goes on.

Aurora’s principal conductor is Nicholas Collon who is rapidly making a name for himself as a conductor of imagination and vibrancy. Tonight’s B Minor Mass was a superb achievement and had a freshness and joyfulness that was simply wonderful. While thinking about the work before the show, I thought deeply about how I, as an atheist from a non-Christian background should approach it, much in the same way that I would approach Dialogues des Carmélites. The B Minor Mass is quite simply one of the masterpieces of western civilization, the culmination of the genius of a pivotal figure in musical history. It is also in many ways a supreme declaration of faith. Yet on a personal level, as someone who does not share that faith, I find that the text functions as a means to illustrate this glorious music. The music is what moves me and makes my world a better place although I am sure that for others, the marriage of word and sacred text is what they value. At the same time, it is not a monument. It is a living breathing work that lives only for the two hours that it takes to perform it yet lingers long in the memory thereafter. In many ways Collon and the Aurora’s approach was in keeping with this – not for them was the music an austere ritual, rather it was full of joy and life and this evening it came alive in music-making of outstanding distinction.

The modestly-sized band played with strings with minimal vibrato, natural trumpets but modern horns and woodwind. The sound produced was wonderful marrying period style with modern amplitude. Tempi were beautifully fluid and in almost all cases, very well chosen. The only movement where I felt things didn’t quite work was in the ‘gratias agimus tibi’ and corresponding ‘dona nobis pacem’ – in both Collon chose a deliberate, majestic tempo that I found didn’t quite fit with the superb fluency of the rest. There were so many striking things to admire in the orchestral playing – the jagged whipping of the strings in the ‘crucifixus’, the joyful peeling of the natural trumpets in the ‘cum sancto spiritu’ and Nicholas Fleury’s beautifully played horn obbligato in the ‘quoniam’. It was simply wonderful.

They were joined by the youthful forces of Cambridge’s Clare College Choir. I was first made aware of them in René Jacobs’ marvellous Messiah and they sang superbly tonight with outstanding discipline yet with a freshness and warmth of tone that were beguiling. They coped splendidly with Bach’s tricky counterpoint. Perhaps some of the vowels were a bit too English for my taste (standard Italian church Latin pronunciation was used) and their youthfulness was betrayed in a very slight weakness on the – admittedly horrifically difficult – tenor line. Make no mistake, however, this was choral singing of the very highest quality and deeply impressive.

The solo singers were very good. I really enjoyed the richness of Jennifer Johnston’s mezzo in the duets. I regret that she was not given the ‘agnus dei’ or the ‘laudamus te’ as I would have liked to have heard a lot more of her. Malin Christensson was an impressive soprano soloist – the voice was slightly darker that one might have expected but she coped well a nicely fluid tempo in the ‘laudamus te’ and she blended very well with Johnston. The men were more than decent and in Joshua Ellicott’s tenor even more so – he sang with ease and warmth of tone.

The acoustic of Hall One at King’s Place was also a star of the evening – warm and resonant it allowed the work to bloom perfectly and become the living masterpiece it truly is. It was a wonderful evening, one that will live a very long time in the memory.


The Dialogues

Poulenc – Dialogues des Carmélites

Mère Marie – Sophie Koch

Blanche de la Force – Patricia Petibon

Mme Lidoine – Véronique Gens

Sœur Constance – Sabine Devieilhe

Mme de Croissy – Rosalind Plowright

Le Chevalier de la Force – Topi Lehtipuu

Le Marquis de la Force – Philippe Rouillon

Mère Jeanne – Annie Vavrille

Sœur Mathilde – Sophie Pondjiclis

Le Père confesseur – François Piolino

Le premier commissaire – Jérémy Duffau

Le second commissaire – Yuri Kissin

Thierry/Le médecin/Le geôlier – Mathieu Lécroart

Chœur du Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Philharmonia Orchestra / Jérémie Rhorer.

Stage director – Olivier Py.

Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris.  Sunday, December 15th, 2013.

This was the last leg in a three-city, four opera marathon where all the shows were in some way exceptional.  On paper this Dialogues des Carmélites had an incredible cast and it takes a truly special show to live up to its expectations.  This show most certainly did.  It seems to be that the casting director at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées sat down and came up with a list of some of the finest francophone singers operating today and engaged them.  What really made this such a special show was that the diction was by and large exemplary which meant that the drama came alive in the way that opera in the vernacular can.

Sandrine Piau withdrew and she was replaced by the sensational talent of Sabine Devieilhe.  I’ve heard great things about Devieilhe and she more than fulfilled her promise.  Her Soeur Constance was sung with an incredibly clear liquid tone and a sweetness and ease on the top which was beguiling.  The voice is a nice size and carried well in the theatre.

Sophie Koch’s Mère Marie was a dramatic tour de force.  The slightly abrasive tone was certainly in keeping with her character. Her honest and warm singing had great presence and a terrific top.  Patricia Petibon was also superb as Blanche.  The voice seems to have gained a wider range of colours in recent years and her singing was by and large very disciplined.  Her closing lines were shattering.  Rosalind Plowright dominated the stage in act 1 as Mme de Croissy.  It wasn’t always beautiful singing but it was completely mesmerizing and the voice came across as large and rich.  Then there was Véronique Gens.  If there is a finer Mme Lidoine anywhere, I would be amazed.  She was quite simply perfect.  The warmth of tone, ease of line, clarity of diction – everything was there and more.  There was a strength to her characterization that was incredibly moving.  She must be in her absolute prime right now.  I would say that this is the best I have ever heard her sing.

The gentlemen were very good without being incredibly memorable.  Topi Lehtipuu had a tendency to pronounce ‘peur’ as ‘père’ which was somewhat distracting but his singing was wonderfully fluent and easy.  Philippe Rouillon’s Marquis was a tower of strength.  Supporting roles were well taken especially Jérémy Duffau’s premier commissaire.

Olivier Py’s staging was suitably austere and offered a remarkable framework for the drama.  Some elements of the Personenregie didn’t quite convince.  I don’t really want to discuss them because I think in doing so might draw undue attention to them and possibly ruin the enjoyment of anyone who is going to see it or will be seeing the internet live stream.  Lighting (Bertrand Killy) was extremely effective, especially in the prison scene and final scene.  To an atheist of a non-Catholic background I think I – inevitably – missed out on some of the subtleties and meaning of the imagery.  Py’s vision of the work was, at one with Poulenc’s, a very Catholic rather than a humanist one.  That is not to say that the show lacked humanity – certainly not – but it was very much rooted in the Catholicism deeply embedded in the work.  Mme de Croissy’s death scene was spectacularly staged, her bed on the back wall of the set which gave Plowright the opportunity to full inhabit and express the character.  I could write more about the staging but as I mentioned, I really don’t want to ruin anyone’s experience of seeing it for the first time.

I realize that I haven’t yet mentioned the contribution of the Philharmonia who were superb form with playing of great expressiveness and virtuosity.   To say that it was a great accompaniment to what was happening on stage risks diminishing the value of their contribution but it indeed perfectly matched the events on stage.  Jérémie Rhorer’s conducting was lyrical and broad yet also offered violence and precision where necessary.  It was very well paced.

The show will be streamed on the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées’s website on December 21st and I recommend that anyone who loves great singing, French music and these wonderful artists watch it.  Outstanding.

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Baroque Virtuosity

Handel – Rinaldo

Rinaldo – Franco Fagioli
Armida – Karina Gauvin
Goffredo – Varduhi Abrahamyan
Almirena – Emőke Baráth
Eustazio – Xavier Sabata
Argante – Gianluca Buratto

Il pomo d’oro / Riccardo Minasi.
Concert performance

Theater an der Wien, Vienna. Saturday, December 14th, 2013.

Sometimes, sets and costumes are unnecessary and in this concert performance of Rinaldo the singing carried all before it. It was phenomenally cast with some of the very finest singers of today. If last night’s Tristan marked the summit of what a certain type of human voice can achieve then tonight’s Rinaldo represented a technical Everest for baroque artists and this cast excelled themselves in feats of technical brilliance.

As those who dip into this blog occasionally might guess, the main attraction for me tonight was Karina and she did not disappoint as Armida. She was outstanding, the voice free and easy, coloratura expertly dispatched and that liquid golden tone flowed effortlessly. She’s down to sing the role in Glyndebourne next year and it’s definitely worth seeing. Emőke Baráth had an announcement made for her Almirena but it was not necessary. The voice is somewhat redolent of Emma Kirby in its purity yet it also has a richness that is very attractive. Her legato in ‘lascia ch’io piango’ was beautifully done. I would have perhaps liked a bit more ornamentation in her arias but she sang superbly. Varduhi Abrahamyan’s Goffredo was also wonderfully done. Coloratura easy and a beautifully full tone matched the music to perfection.

Franco Fagioli in the title role offered singing that was simply staggering in its virtuosity. Unlike some of his cast mates, he offered some quite stunning ornamentation showing off all of his incredible range. It was quite simply amazing. Xavier Sabata was the real discovery for me of the night. He has this beautifully oaky counter tenor, a wonderfully warm and full tone with sheer ease of production and an effortlessly easy line. He is certainly a singer to watch and one I very much look forward to seeing again, very soon. Gianluca Burrato’s Argante was also beautifully sung in a bass that seemed effortlessly produced that seemed as deep as the Atlantic. Very impressive.

Riccardo Minasi directed Il pomo d’oro from the violin. They played well but there were some intonation issues in the strings here and there. For me I would have preferred more of a sense of improvisation in the playing – for example imitating the singers when they ornamented a line, but I imagine limited rehearsal time played a part in that. There was certainly a beautiful sound to the band.

This was an evening of spectacular singing at the very highest level by artists at the very top of their game. It introduced me to an outstanding new talent and also renewed my acquaintance with some outstanding voices. Unforgettable.

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Richness and Humanity

Wagner – Tristan und Isolde

Tristan – Robert Dean Smith

König Marke – Albert Dohmen

Isolde – Violeta Urmana

Kurwenal – Matthias Goerne

Melot – Clemens Unterreiner

Brangäne – Elisabeth Kulman

Ein Hirt – Carlos Osuna

Ein Steuermann – Marcus Pelz

Simme eines jungen Seemanns – Sebastian Kohlhepp

Chor der Wiener Staatsoper, Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper / Peter Schneider

Stage director – David McVicar.

Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna.  Friday, December 13th, 2013

 

This was my fourth visit to the Wiener Staatsoper since starting this blog and it’s a house with a great tradition if inconsistent quality.  I saw a superb Billy Budd  there but I also saw a dreary Forza that was a disappointment.  The Forza and tonight’s Tristan had the wonderful Violeta Urmana in common.  As in her recent Eboli in Berlin, it’s clear that La Urmana has entered the next stage in her career.  Yet tonight her performance was utterly captivating at the centre of an excellent cast in a show that was outstandingly sung and conducted and played with distinction.

It wasn’t perfect but it was certainly human.  Perhaps the weakest link was Robert Dean Smith’s Tristan.  He wasn’t bad, not by any means, rather that he spent a lot of the time underneath the note and the support seemed lacking at times so that ends of phrases did not seem to be sustained.  It’s a taxing role for sure and he acquitted himself well, it’s just that I would say that it was not quite on the same level as his colleagues.

Elisabeth Kulman was a wonderful Brangäne, her copper tone contrasting nicely with Urmana’s and she floated her act 2 solo from the tower to perfection. She was also a striking stage presence. Matthias Goerne sang Kurwenal with grainy tone yet with a lieder singer’s attention to text. Albert Dohmen’s Marke made a character who can seem to drone on interminably genuinely interesting by his clarity of diction and pointing of the text.

Then there was Urmana.  She was the main reason I attended the show and she did not disappoint.  I’ve heard her sing this role three times now and this was by far the best.  It’s true that the voice has lost some freshness but she can still pull out some fabulous top Cs and also sing with incredible beauty as in ‘o sink hernieder’.  Where she has gained is in interpretative insight and she sang the curse like a woman possessed.  Above all she gave us a character who was truly regal but also genuinely human.

Peter Schneider replaced the advertised Chung Myunwhung and he conducted a thrilling account of the score eliciting playing of great depth and richness from the orchestra.  Other than some slight tuning and ensemble issues in the strings, they played fabulously.  Tempi were fluid and kept constantly moving which meant the hours flew by.

I found McVicar’s staging to be both engaging and infuriating in equal measure.  Infuriating because he added a corps of buff sailors making stylized dance movements who, while adding eye candy, distracted from the principals and served no real purpose.  Their use was intermittent and it felt added on and superfluous.  Sets and costumes seemed to combine the sci fi and the ancient as if to give it some measure of timelessness but otherwise provided an attractive enough framework for the action without being particularly enlightening.

This was a superb interpretation of this important work.  It represented opera at the very highest level at a house when at the top of its game as it was tonight can be one of the best in the world.

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Work in Progress

Offenbach – Les Contes d’Hoffmann

Hoffmann – Evan Bowers

Olympia – Mari Eriksmoen

Antonia – Nina Gravrok

Giulietta – Randi Stene

Lindorf/Coppélius/le Dr Miracle/Dapertutto – Alex Esposito

Nicklausse/La Muse – Ingeborg Gillebo

Andrès/Cochenille/Frantz – Svein Erik Sagbråten

Hermann – Carsten Stabell

Nathanaël/Spalanzani – Thor Inge Falch

Luther/Crespel – Magne Fremmerlid

La voix de la tombe – Ingebjørg Kosmo

Norske Operakoret, Norske Operaorkestret / Stefan Blunier.

Stage director – Calixto Bieito.

Den Norske Opera, Nasjonal Operaen, Oslo.  Thursday, December 12th, 2013.

It seems that every time I see a Calixto Bieito production, I mention that he is for me, the finest stage director out there today.  So many of his shows have been revelatory and have managed to portray the work in question in a completely new light.  It was surprising then to come across a staging that perhaps ultimately lacked cohesion.

For this performance, Bieito and the conductor Stefan Blunier settled on a pared-down edition that reduced the piece to its bare essentials.   This worked well in concentrating the action but there were a few elements that did not convince.  On a number of occasions the chorus was placed off-stage which resulted in serious balance issues.  This was particularly so in the final scene which seemed particularly disjointed in that all I could hear was the orchestra with a distant chorus.  In the Olympia scene the chorus was barely audible.  Diction was also a problem.  I am fully aware that French is an almost impossible language to get right but at the same time understandable diction makes a real difference in making the drama come to life.  I also found Blunier’s conducting somewhat four-sqaure and heavy – I yearned for some lightness and swing – although he was well-served by the excellent orchestra.

Despite all of this, I left the theatre feeling the way only a Bieito production can make me feel.  Like he had reached my emotional core.  For Bieito, Hoffmann is an alcoholic, standing at the edge of the abyss, who seems to bring misfortune to all of the women he comes into contact with.  The staging was a technical tour de force, making full use of the Operaen’s superb facilities.  The Olympia act was set in a gaudy neon environment with Olympia given pills rather than being wound up.  This contrasted with the Antonia act was which staged in a sparse bourgeois drawing room, Antonia dressed in Victorian black with Hoffmann’s scruffy hoody and jeans contrasting with her surroundings.  The Giulietta act was seemingly held in a brothel, the beauty of the barcarolle contrasting with the ugliness of the events on the stage.  Stella was revealed to be Hoffmann’s wife, she and her children terrified of his alcoholic state.  The comforting closing theme contrasted with Hoffmann alone and broken on stage.

The Olympia act consisted of dolls descending from the flies, the Antonia act was set on a stage inside the stage that drifted along the void underneath the main stage.  The Giulietta act was set within a metal structure that was raised from underneath the stage.

The singing on the whole was of a good quality and in many cases much more than that.  Alex Esposito was the main draw casting-wise for me in this show and he did not disappoint.  He was vocally outstanding, dramatically even more so.  His rich, red-wine bass-baritone had the full measure of all four villains and his sound was full and easy throughout the range.  He was an incredibly engaging actor, fully inhabiting each of his characters and giving each one a clear personality.  He also managed to look very good in a mini jupe.  Like many Italian singers he had a tendency to privilege the line over the words but he certainly has the ability to spin a beautiful line. I look forward to seeing more of him soon.

Evan Bowers as Hoffmann was new to me although I was familiar with the name.  He sang heroically hitting his top notes with ease.  He was also an affecting actor, clearly completely broken at the end.  I just wish that he had made more of the words.  Of the ladies, Mari Eriksmoen was a sensational Olympia.  The voice isn’t the biggest but she seems to have a fabulous top and a tone redolent of Beverly Sills combined with excellent French.  Nina Gravrok is also very interesting new talent as Antonia.  She sang with great richness and generosity and also in impeccable French.  The top of the voice sounded slightly disconnected from the middle but she is a very interesting singer and one I would like to hear again.  Randi Stene didn’t seem to have much to do in this production as Giulietta but what she did do, she did well and her acting was gripping.  Ingeborg Gillebo’s Muse was well-sung, nicely phrased and she was also a convincing actress.

Ultimately, tonight – much like the opera itself – felt to me like a work in progress.  It’s a show that has a lot of potential and looks absolutely stunning but there are a few things – such as the positioning of the chorus – that don’t quite work.  At the same time, it showed all the hallmarks of Bieito’s genius, was more than decently sung and introduced me to some very interesting new talent.  The Oslo house is also a stunning theatre from its beautiful auditorium, to the striking exterior and its unbeatable location.  I am definitely more than happy that I made the journey to see it.

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Elektra and the Multitudes

Strauss – Elektra

Elektra – Iréne Theorin

Klytämnestra – Waltraud Meier

Chrysothemis – Richarda Merbeth

Orest – Yevgeny Nikitin

Ägisth – Kim Begley

Der Pfleger des Orest – Johannes Schmidt

Ein junger Diener – Jörg Schneider

Ein alter Diener – Kristof Klorek

Die Aufseherin – Miranda Keys

Die Vertraute – Ghislaine Roux

Die Schleppträgerin – Corinne Talibart

Erste Magd – Anja Jung

Zweite Magd – Susanna Kreusch

Dritte Magd – Heike Wessels

Vierte Magd – Barbara Morihien

Fünfte Magd – Eva Oltivanyi

Choeur de l’Opéra national de Paris, Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Paris / Philippe Jordan.

Stage director – Robert Carsen.

Opéra de Paris-Bastille, Paris.  Sunday, December 1st, 2013.

This very good Elektra was followed by two archetypal Paris experiences – a wonderful meal of steak au poivre with an excellent Côtes du Rhône and getting my iPhone stolen.  Still, it was an enjoyable performance (as enjoyable as any Elektra can be) and if it didn’t quite hit the heights of the other Elektras I saw this year, in Aix-en-Provence and London, it was perhaps more due to the difficult acoustic of the Bastille theatre and the conducting than any individual performance.

To have seen three quite outstanding Elektras with the space of five months is not something that happens often but it invariably means that comparisons are inevitable.  This was my first time to hear Iréne Theorin and she impressed by her bright tone and fearless vocalism.  Interestingly, the voice seemed much smaller compared to the voices I had heard the previous evening and despite paying the same price for the seat, it felt that the seat that I had did not offer the same quality of sound as the seat last night.  Consequently, much that Theorin did was lost when she was singing upstage but when she sang at the front of the stage, the sound was bright, clear and forward.  I would say that the voice doesn’t quite have the weight of a Herlitzius (who does?), but it does share with Goerke a similar quick vibrato but with a much brighter sound.  I don’t feel that I can judge Theorin’s performance fully given the problematic acoustic but I would certainly like to hear her again.

Ricarda Merbeth offered a Chrysothemis who at times carried better through the theatre than Theorin.  There was a richness of tone there that was very fine but also a slight tendency to sing under the note.  This is the second time that I have heard Waltraud Meier’s Klytämnestra and she, more than any of the other principals, suffered from the Bastille acoustic.  There were a number of times that she was inaudible from my seat, tuning was often awry and she resorted frequently to Sprechgesang.  Yevgeny Nikitin’s Orest was very impressive, firm and rich of voice, and Kim Begley’s Ägisth was strikingly sung.  The maids were efficient enough but I was particularly struck by Miranda Keys’ overseer who was in much fresher voice than the ladies who are usually assigned the role.

Philippe Jordan’s conducting felt somewhat episodic I think partly due to the particularities of the Bastille acoustic.  Loud sections seemed to come from nowhere without a build-up and tension sagged dangerously at times.  This was particularly apparent in the Elektra- Klytämnestra confrontation where Jordan achieved incredibly quiet playing from his band but to the detriment of inner pulse.  Perhaps in a smaller house this would have worked but in the barn that is the Bastille, it just sagged horribly.  He gave a highly romantic reading, with great sweep, it felt he was creating a sound world that was truly cantabile but in this aggressive score, I felt that he sacrificed too much.  The Opéra orchestra played sensationally offering playing of virtuosity and weight.  After the superbly played Puritani last night, this really is an exceptional band.

I have seen so many Robert Carsen productions now that the whole thing felt a little déjà vu.  It seemed to be set in a bunker with all the female characters except for Klytämnestra identically dressed in black shifts.  At the end Elektra appears to fall asleep which raises the question of whether it was all meant to be Elektra’s dream. A large number of body doubles imitate Elektra’s physical movements which results in some arresting stage pictures but also reminded me somewhat of his Vlaamse Opera Turandot which seemed to revolve significantly around the communal moving of pieces of furniture.  It was certainly arresting to look at but having all the female characters wearing the same clothes and my personal distance from the stage, resulted in a sense of relationships between these female characters not being particularly established and confused.  Ultimately perhaps, that may well have been Carsen’s intention that the only relationship female that matters is the Elektra- Klytämnestra one yet if that is indeed the case, it does not quite do justice to the entire work.

This was an afternoon that promised so much yet only partially delivered mainly due to the problems inherent in performing in that particular acoustic.  It was outstandingly played by an orchestra at the top of its game and it was securely sung for the most part.  Yet it didn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts simply because the acoustic as experienced from my particular seat did not offer the best aural experience.  This despite paying the same price for a seat from where the previous evening the sound was perfectly acceptable.  When I booked the Opéra did not offer the opportunity to select one’s own seats.  It does now and it is certainly worth checking carefully when booking.  It would be a shame to miss out hearing that fabulous orchestra but the quality of sound really does depend on where one is seated in the auditorium.


Admiration and Warmth

Bellini – I Puritani

Elvira – Maria Agresta
Arturo – Dmitri Korchak
Riccardo – Mariusz Kwiecień
Giorgio – Michele Petrusi
Bruno – Luca Lombardo
Enrichetta – Andreea Soare
Gualtiero – Wojtek Smilek

Choeur de l’Opéra national de Paris, Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Paris / Michele Mariotti.
Stage Director – Laurent Pelly

Opéra de Paris-Bastille, Paris. Saturday, November 30th, 2013.

What is bel canto without beautiful singing? It isn’t always the most dramatically gripping of operatic forms and this is perhaps the sensation that I left with this evening, beautifully sung yet missing in drama. This was actually my first live Puritani and Bellini is a composer that I haven’t really experienced much in the theatre. I always have a sense that music such as this needs an extra helping hand otherwise the awkward plots and occasionally awkward music can start to grate. Yet, when done well it can be one of the most spectacular and enjoyable evenings in the theatre.

I have heard great things of Maria Agresta and tonight they were fully realized. Hers is a medium-sized lyric soprano with an effortless trill, wonderful agility and an easy top. She also has an attractive white wine tone. Given her repertoire, I was expecting something along the lines of Caballé but the truth is that Agresta is a very individual artist with a full understanding of the style. Some beautiful diminuendi combined with some startling pianissimi showed an artist willing to take risks and put her own, individual stamp on the music. She has only been singing professionally since 2007 and she has already been booked to sing on some of the world’s leading stages. She is already a very good artist who has the potential to become a great one.

As any regular readers of this blog may know, Mariusz Kwiecień is a big favourite of mine. An announcement was made at the start of the evening on his behalf and it was clear that he was not on top form. Yet, his first aria demonstrated all that I enjoy in his singing – the endless breath control, the wonderful warmth of tone and a profound understanding of the style that cannot be taught, a singer either has or it or he doesn’t. And Kwiecień most certainly has it. I wish him a very swift recovery.

I hate to say that at first I found Michele Petrusi’s Giorgio a bit dull. But I think the blame actually lay on the conducting more than anything else. He had real warmth of tone and an easy legato and he blended nicely with Kwiecień in their big duet. It was nicely done. We have been spoilt recently for tenors in this repertoire and Dmitri Korchak definitely has an instrument of beauty and potential. I felt that he forced the tone a little – could very well be due to nerves – but he certainly does have the fundamentals of the style. He is without doubt an interesting artist.

I first came across Michele Mariotti at the Royal Opera House earlier this year in La Donna del Lago. He achieved playing of great beauty from the Opéra orchestra and he conducted a reading that was well-manicured, fluent and certainly matched in its beauty what was happening on stage. I admired it greatly but I can’t say I loved it. For me, this is music that has angular edges and the beauty on stage needs to be countered with a certain rhythmic precision and energy in the orchestral sound. There were tantalizing moments of what could have been in ‘suoni la tromba’ where the orchestra pushed the drama along nicely. He is also a very supportive accompanist to his singers. Of course, there are many who enjoyed this interpretation and so much of music appreciation is personal. I have to say that for me it was deeply impressive but just lacking in impetus and swing.

Laurent Pelly’s staging played the work relatively straight. That was perhaps the problem. There were some impressive stage pictures and it acted as a great framework for the vocal beauty taking place on the stage. At the same time there was a lot of standing and delivering and only Agresta and Kwiecień managed to pull me into their interpretations by sheer force of charisma and dramatic conviction. I’ve seen some great Pelly productions that I very much enjoyed, this wasn’t one of them.

Ultimately this was a very mixed evening. It introduced me to a major new talent, one who has the potential to be a major star. I also got to see flashes of brilliance from a favourite singer who demonstrated all the attributes that I appreciate in his singing. At the same time, I was not quite convinced that the performance as a whole managed to cover up the weaknesses of the work. In a way I’d like to see it again and I will certainly make an effort to catch the cinema relay of the production. It’s a show that is certainly worth seeing for Agresta and Kwiecień above all.

 

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Richness and Generosity

Verdi – Don Carlo

Don Carlo – Russell Thomas

Tebaldo – Alexandra Hutton

Elisabetta – Anja Harteros

Conte di Lerma – Álvaro Zambrano

Rodrigo – Dalibor Jenis

Filippo II – Hans-Peter König

Eboli – Violeta Urmana

Carlo V – Tobias Kehrer

Grande Inquisitore – Albert Pesendorfer

Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin / Donald Runnicles.

Stage Director – Marco Arturo Marelli

Deutsche Oper, Berlin.  Saturday, November 16th, 2013.

Somehow it seems that Don Carlo, in one of its many versions, brings out the very best in its interpreters.  Having seen an exceptional Don Carlo back in May at the Royal Opera House, I am now incredibly lucky to have seen another one at the Deutsche Oper.  I was fortunate enough to see the Royal Opera’s Don Carlo twice, once with Anja Harteros and again with Lianna Haroutounian.  On both occasions, I was particularly struck by the performances of Mariusz Kwiecien as Posa and Feruccio Furlanetto as Philip and it was very difficult to erase these two portrayals from my mind.  At the same time, I would not wish to do a disservice to the excellent singers in those particular roles tonight.  Ultimately, opera is an ephemeral form and something that one watches simply lives in the memory for a long time afterwards.

I regret that tonight we received the four-act Italian version.  One really misses the first act and its setting up of the back story between Carlo and Elisabetta but also the opportunity to hear Carlo sing ‘io la vidi’.  Any references I make to acts in this post will refer to the five-act version.  Tonight the work was outstandingly sung, played and conducted at the very highest level.

Russell Thomas is a young artist who is rapidly gaining recognition in the Italian repertoire.  There is no doubt that he is a major talent and very much the real thing.  He has a warmth and generosity to the tone that is perfect for this repertoire yet there is so much more than that.  He is an incredibly sensitive artist – there were some remarkable diminuendi and pianissimi – and his attention to text is exemplary.  The voice has real amplitude and Italianate richness.  He is definitely a singer to watch.  Violeta Urmana has entered the next stage of her career.  Having seen her give one of the most stunning Verdi performances I have ever seen as Amelia in Ballo in Madrid in 2008, tonight she gave us an outstanding Eboli, one of the very finest I have heard.  She is such a warm and generous singer and her silky, velvety voice has gained additional fruitiness.  She is one of the few singers to completely nail the veil song and ‘don fatale’.  The veil song was spot on, every note in place, beautifully done.  ‘Don fatale’ was just sensational, the middle of the voice was rich and warm and the top was stunning, the final note seemingly held on forever.  In fact it’s the best I have heard that aria sung live.  I’m very much looking forward to her Isolde in Vienna next month.  The Act 3 trio with Posa and Carlo was show-stopping.

Posa was sung by Dalibor Jenis who brought a fine legato and was certainly very impressive with some excellent breath control.  The Carlo/Posa duet was wonderfully done, there was real blend between the singers and it built up to a magnificent climax.  His ‘per me giunto’ was beautifully shaded and sung but didn’t quite move me in the way this aria has done in the past.  Hans-Peter König was a very fine Philip.  The voice had real richness and he was an affecting actor.  Yet the in the confrontation scene between Posa and Philip the sparks just didn’t fly in the way that they can.

Then there was Harteros.  She is now at her absolute peak.  The voice has incredible amplitude, its wonderful combination of pearl and cream filled the house beautifully.  Her ‘tu che le vanità’ was again a highlight, the diminuendo on ‘Francia’ so exquisitely, beautifully done, the voice so totally under the control of its owner.  She had an occasional tendency to sing sharp but nothing that disturbed too much.  What struck, as in London, was the line and her ability to sing phrases that seemed to go on for ever.  I am very much looking forward to seeing her in Forza in Munich in January.

Runnicles’ conducting was quite simply sensational.  He delivered an exceptionally fluent and gripping reading of the score.  It was quite frankly, for me, in a different league from Pappano’s disjointed and laboured conducting in London.  While Don Carlo is undoubtedly Verdi’s masterpiece, it is a piece that needs a helping hand and Runnicles offered this in flowing tempi and exceptional rhythmic precision.  The second half of act 3, with the auto da fé, the opening of which can sound flaccid in the wrong hands, here was crisp and clear.  Perhaps the scene between the Grand Inquisitor and Philip might have been taken a little slower but there was a momentum there that was completely compelling.  Everything flowed so well from one section to the next, it was, undoubtedly, a major achievement.  The choral singing also was striking in its blend and amplitude – there was a real homogeneity to the sound that was deeply impressive.  The orchestra sounded fantastic in the Deutsche Oper acoustic offering playing that was virtuosic in its richness.

Staging-wise I must admit that I much preferred it to Hytner’s.  There were several touches that worked well – Eboli seen with the King at the start of Act 4 making it clear that she had betrayed Carlo; the constant presence of the Flemish deputies towards the end, the way the people rallied around Carlo at the start of the auto da fé.  This was an impressive interpretation that really brought to life the clerical dictatorship in which the story operates in a way that was deeply impressive.  Just like Runnicles’ conducting, the production had a fluency that was completely at the service of the work.

To see one exceptional performance of Don Carlo in a year is exceptionally fortunate, to see two is just amazing and I am so privileged to have been able to see them.  Yet tonight also introduced me to a important new tenor, one who has a lot of promise in this repertoire and also allowed me to see two favourite singers excelling themelves.  An exceptional evening.

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