Tag Archives: Les Contes d’Hoffmann

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!

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.


Fall 2013 Highlights

Inspired by the excellent French blog Il Tenero momento’s recent post of ‘Opéra: 15 spectacles à ne pas manquer en 2013/2014’, I decided to write a little post on what my highlights of fall 2013 are going to be.  Part of the reason I decided to write this is because for August 2013 I am fasting – no live music of any kind until the Royal Opera House’s Turandot on September 9th.  Partly also because 2013-14 promises to be one of the best seasons for opera yet as far as the shows on offer are.  Unfortunately, there is no way that I can see absolutely everything that I would like to – the Béatrice et Bénédict in Glasgow and Evelyn Herlitzius’ Turandot in Rome are certainly two I’m going to regret missing. Nevertheless, there are so many shows that I am looking forward to that choosing 10 potential highlights was extremely difficult.  So here are my – very personal – top picks for the fall:

1.   Yevgeny Onegin, Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Having planned to see this way back when the Met’s season was announced, events in Russia made actually booking it very difficult.  There isn’t even space here for me to go into detail on my thoughts on the subject but the main reason I’m going to see this show is Mariusz Kwiecien’s Onegin.  Following his outstanding Posa for the Royal Opera and his stunning King Roger in Bilbao (one of the most amazing evenings I’ve had in 20 years of opera going) the fact that I was going to be in Montreal around the same time meant that a side-trip to New York was inevitable.  I’ll admit that I have never been one of Miss Netrebko’s biggest fans but I’m looking forward to seeing her live in the theatre to make my own mind up.  I still have mixed feelings about paying money to support two artists who’ve done much to sustain the awful regime in Russia but the truth is that I am not going for them.  I’m going to see an artist I admire greatly who gives me a great deal of pleasure.

2.   Fidelio, English National Opera, London

This marks Calixto Bieito’s return to London after his triumphant Carmen at the Coliseum.  I’ve gone on record and will go on record again to say that I am convinced that Bieito is the finest opera stage director out there today and I am really looking forward to seeing his take on Fidelio.  Having Stuart Skelton as Florestan is certainly an added bonus

3.   Armide, De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam

Karina.  Seeing Karina Gauvin, one of the finest sopranos of today singing in a staged production was enough to make this one of the hot tickets of the fall.  That and a fantastic cast including Andrew Foster-Williams, Diana Montague and Henk Neven make it a must-see.  Not convinced about Barrie Kosky’s work that I have seen so far – I wish they’d imported Bieito’s production from the Komische Oper – but I am intrigued about what he will do with the piece.

4.   Le Nozze di Figaro, Salle Pleyel, Paris

René Jacobs recording of the work, made a decade ago, is one of the finest records I have ever heard and if trapped on a desert island with only one recording for comfort is probably the one I would choose.  Figaro has everything from sadness to joy and having the opportunity to hear Jacob’s interpretation live with a phenomenal cast including Rosemary Joshua and Sophie Karthäuser is a really exciting prospect.

5.   Don Carlo, Deutsche Oper, Berlin

This past May I saw greatness on the stage of the Royal Opera House.  One of those evenings where one sees artists at the peak of their powers producing something very special.  For me the strongest performances in an incredible cast came from Anja Harteros as Elisabetta and Mariusz Kwiecien as Posa.  Having the opportunity to see Harteros as Elisabetta again alongside the great Violeta Urmana as Eboli was not one I was going to turn down. Add to that the extremely promising tenor of Russell Thomas as Carlo and this will surely be a very special evening.

6.   Britten Film Scores & Bach B Minor Mass, Queen Elizabeth Hall/King’s Place, London

The Aurora Orchestra is one of the finest chamber orchestras around today.  I had the opportunity to hear them play Beethoven’s 7th Symphony under Nicholas Collon at the start of July and it was quite frankly the best performance of that life-enhancing work I have ever heard.  Their programming is always innovative and exciting and the standard of playing second to none.  Their two concerts of Britten Film scores and the Bach B Minor Mass promise much and I have no doubt they will deliver. Having the Clare College Choir in the B Minor Mass also makes this one of the hot tickets of 2013.

7.   La Fille du Régiment, Staatstheater Karlsruhe

Back in January – how far it seems now – I had the pleasure of seeing one of the finest stagings of Les Troyens I have ever seen.  The Iopas in that production was the extremely promising young Mexican tenor Eleazar Rodríguez, a singer with an incredible sense of line, awareness of text and excellent technique.  In Fall 2013 he will be singing Tonio at the Staatstheater Karlsruhe a role that surely fits him like a glove and I am very much looking forward to seeing him sing it.  For those who’ve never been the Staatstheater Karlsruhe is a superb house with affordable ticket prices, innovative programming and a terrific ensemble.  Well worth a visit.

8.   Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Norske Opera, Oslo

Bieito and the fantastic architecture of the new Oslo opera house.  What more could there be? Well added to that an excellent cast including Alex Esposito as the villains made this another must-see. I’m really looking forward to seeing what Bieito does with the work.

9.   Dialogues des Carmélites, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris.

The cast list for this production is enough to make anyone run to the ticket office: Sophie Koch, Patricia Petibon, Véronique Gens, Sandrine Piau, Rosalind Plowright with Olivier Py as stage director and Jérémie Rhorer in the pit.  I have a feeling this could well be an overwhelming evening.  At the very least having those ladies together on the same stage promises so much.

10. Elektra, Royal Opera House, London and Opéra de Paris, Paris.

I saw the most incredible Elektra I have ever seen in Evelyn Herlitzius last month at the Aix-en-Provence festival.  Things always come in threes though and this fall offers the opportunity to hear two more exceptional sopranos in the role Christine Goerke and Irene Théroin.  I’ve yet to hear either live but I have no doubt that both will be outstanding.

So there you have it.  So many things I haven’t mentioned.  I’ve tended to tweet more about shows that I have seen rather than blog about them but there are certainly more things to look forward to on top of these – Johan Reuter’s Nabucco in Berlin, Violeta Urmana’s Isolde in Vienna, Karina’s Armida in Rinaldo also in Vienna, not forgetting having the opportunity to see Les Vêpres siciliennes at the Royal Opera House and seeing Simon Keenlyside’s Wozzeck with Karita Mattila’s Marie.  The forthcoming season definitely promises so much.


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