Sunday, 26 June 2016

What art is for (ROH/Werther)



Massenet, Werther (Antonio Pappano cond. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House)

A short note on the second Werther of the run on Friday night (24th June). The atmosphere in town was extraordinary for obvious reasons. It provided an excellent opportunity for Joyce DiDonato and co to  show us what art is for: that it can be a balm, that it can heal, that it can provide consolation, that it can bring people together. Since Sunday, not much had changed. Grigòlo’s voice had stepped up a gear considerably and showed more power. Next to DiDonato’s perfect Français, the Italianate nature of his style showed, but served mainly to set the poet far removed from real life. Yet this was all so directly related to real life, or the real need. It was so obvious that the music did so much good. It was extraordinary to see just how well art could respond to the most pressing need of so many. 
Vittorio Grigòlo as Werther and Joyce DiDonato as Charlotte in Werther, Royal Opera House © 2016 ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper
Overall: this performance said so very much about art and its purpose, in a way which Glyndebourne had failed the previous night.

Until 13th July; in cinemas 27th June, plus encore screenings.

Cast and creatives
Music - Jules Massenet
Libretto - Edouard Blau, Paul Milliet and Georges Hartmann
Director - Benoît Jacquot
Set and lighting designer - Charles Edwards
Costume designer - Christian Gasc
Conductor - Antonio Pappano
Werther - Vittorio Grigòlo
Charlotte - Joyce DiDonato
Albert - David Bizic
Sophie - Heather Engebretson
The Bailli - Jonathan Summers
Johann - Yuriy Yurchuk
Schmidt - François Piolino
Brühlmann - Rick Zwart
Käthchen - Emily Edmonds
Concert master - Vasko Vassilev
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

High camp (Glyndebourne/Meistersinger)


Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Michael Güttler cond. London Philharmonic Orchestra at Glyndebourne)
It wasn’t a very nice day on Thursday. The rain saw picnicking under cover, which is a bubbly sort of fun. Obviously bubbles being the operative thing. The warmth of humanity gently compressed around the opera house. It seems unimaginable now.  All having a party. Champagne corks (Fortnum’s rather injudiciously had placed an advert in the FT on Friday advertising 25pc off champagne as something on which we could all agree). It was also St John’s Eve (23rd June) on which some of the action takes place. One of those joyful coincidences like Parsifal on Good Friday and Bohéme on Christmas eve
Die Meistersinger asks, and being Wagner attempts to answer, what is art? Or what makes a piece of art good? This is one of the big, fundamental but unanswerable questions. Glyndebourne’s revived Meistersinger gives it a big answer. This is their largest production and the final scene is enormous with perhaps 200 on stage. McVicar goes for a traditional, inoffensive production. This does much to add clarity to storytelling.  The stage itself was too cluttered at time. The big statue of Bach might have been a bit smaller for example, without in the least undermining what was being done. The bust of Wagner of Sachs’s table was rather a nice, cheeky nod. The costumes and set were gorgeous and sumptuous. The usually utterly reliable Paule Constable’s lighting here seemed rather off. The sunlight couldn’t possibly come in to Hans Sachs’s workshop like that given the street scene we had been shown. But it looked pretty. So style over substance there. What does that say about art? 
The light could simply not come in at that angle from the street scene previously.
Musically this was of the finest quality. Conductor Michael Güttler made sure that the LPO gave a sensible, measured account of the score which underpinned the drama onstage. This is a marathon and the work is pretty evenly shared out, other than Sachs and Walther. The star of the show was Gerald Finley returning to the role. Since he did it first in Sussex he’s become a star – perhaps an extraordinarily large fee paid to him was the cause of astonishing ticket prices (I doubt it, as that’s not how things are done there: singers who return are charmed rather than lured). Finley was an superb presence and continued to Walther (Michael Schade) as apprentice was impressive. Eva (Amanda Majeski) and Magdalene (Hanna Hipp)  gave decent performances too.
Beckmesser was played by Jochen Kupfer. The quality of his singing and acting is not in doubt, but the high camp, ministry of silly walks, and all the rest was tedious and too funny: this is light-hearted Wagner but it is not meant to be slapstick or Monty Python. That said all those rules do have a touch of the Python about them but it wasn’t in here that humour was inserted. Of course Wagner wrote (probably) feet of shelf space on the rules for what music and art should be and how it might function. His rules were a radical reimagining of what opera could be. Meistersinger isn’t, in that regard, on the same scale as Tristan or Parsifal or Ring. This is quite a conventional opera. It’s not Kupfer’s fault, but the funny walk as he left Sachs’s workshop was ludicrous. 

I think my favourite performance of the evening came from Patrick Guetti. The night watchman may be a small part, but it was sung in such a fine clear bass, that it was truly memorable. He’s on the list to seek out elsewhere.
This was an ensemble production. The huge numbers who swarmed the stage at various times made it so.  Movement was not always as clear as it might be. The best thing to would have been to cut it a little bit here and there. A trim on ticket prices (topping out at £300 – has anywhere in the UK charged that much before I wonder? Or anywhere other than Met Gala Fundraisers?) might be supported thus too, whilst making the thing a bit clearer. I think the effort of bringing it all together meant that the production never quite got round to saying what it had to say about art.

Overall: humour and crowding obscured storytelling, in a fun, musically-memorable evening. 

Creative team and select cast from website
Conductor Michael Güttler
Director David McVicar
Designer Vicki Mortimer
Choreographer Andrew George
Lighting Designer Paule Constable
Fight Director Nick Hall
Hans Sachs Gerald Finley
Walther von Stolzing Michael Schade
Eva Amanda Majeski
Beckmesser Jochen Kupfer
Pogner Alastair Miles
David David Portillo
Magdalene Hanna Hipp
 

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Dame Janet and Queen Joyce: life lessons from two majestic mezzos.



Insights: Dame Janet Baker and Joyce DiDonato in conversation
It was the solstice and I have evidence of ghosts. Inducted into a hyper-reality which transcended even Proust’s tisane-soaked madeleine, we can only imagine what Dame Janet Baker thought as she closed her eyes and listened to her younger self sing a little of Maria Stuarda. How did the recording relate to memory? Recorded music, wonderful as it may be, is a pale imitation of the real thing: that’s why so little space is give on these pages to such matters. It is the ersatz good. I know the goosebumps Barenboim’s Walküre at the Proms gives me, as an audience-goer, at a more modest remove. After decades. Of such intensity? The moment felt voyeuristic and intrusive; but it was compulsive too.
Why had Dame Janet and Queen Joyce been assembled thus? As part of a ROH insight event. The evening was actually much more Ode to a Grecian urn. Young singers were encouraged to be truthful to create beauty. Dame Janet spoke of the singer as a glass, through which all might pass, and the need to keep this glass clear. We also had a plea for hard work. Electronic media can help get attention. These may only be surface, but they can help. However there’s no substitute for hard work.
Overall: a deeply illuminating discussion and real privilege to be in the room with them. 

Clips of this remarkable discussion will be posted on Youtube soon.

Broken hearts club (ROH/Werther)



Massenet, Werther (Antonio Pappano cond. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House)
Of the entire year of programming at ROH, the piece to which I have most looked forward, by some way was Joyce DiDonato’s stage debut as Charlotte in Werther. The matchless mezzo with perfect coloratura comes to town. I won’t even pretend I am only going once. 

The opera itself, for the uninitiated, is not the perfect opera. It has gorgeous music undoubtedly. But the heaps of raw emotion aren’t supported by too much action. The characters seem remote in time; surely no woman would behave quite like that today – I certainly hope not. It is also quite uneven, with first two acts relatively slight, but the third and fourth acts are utterly devastating.  Where it triumphs, is a libretto which is more like poetry than prose. Never was anything further from verismo.
Young Charlotte (Joyce DiDonato) is loved endlessly by Werther (Vittorio Grigòlo); their love is doomed but eventually they run off. Joyce has endless range unsurpassed coloratura. Precise volume control paired with acting to finger tips means something very special from Joyce. Grigòlo looked every part the awkward tortured poet in the first two acts but he was not as vocally secure at the top of the register as her might have been; by the third and fourth his voice had warmed up spectacularly and you could see what the fuss was about. His family appeared to be seated a few rows behind us, possibly a special trip from Italy.  
David Bizic played Charlotte’s husband, Albert. He was good but never truly shone. Rather a dullard brute, you could see why she wanted to get away. The other member of supporting cast worth a serious note was the sensational Heather Engebretson. A beautiful soprano voice with power, acceleration. Absolutely, she is one to watch. Johann (Yuriy Yurchuk) and Schmidt (François Piolino) provided great comic interludes. Yurchuk is entirely bankable and seems to feature more and more with the company under the Jette Parker Young Artists programme.
It is a traditional production, spare, pared back. The church was removed from Act II. The gentle blues and artfully rusticated fibreglass or whatever made for a convincing affair. The snow in act IV was tacky and didn’t really work. But this gave space for the music.
With Antonio Pappano conducting each note as if his entire life hinged upon it, the results from the pit sparkled whilst leaving space for all the drama and poetry on stage. 

Overall: layers of beautiful poetry.

Until 13th July; in cinemas 27th June, plus encore screenings.

Cast and creatives
Music - Jules Massenet
Libretto - Edouard Blau, Paul Milliet and Georges Hartmann
Director - Benoît Jacquot
Set and lighting designer - Charles Edwards
Costume designer - Christian Gasc
Conductor - Antonio Pappano
Werther - Vittorio Grigòlo
Charlotte - Joyce DiDonato
Albert - David Bizic
Sophie - Heather Engebretson
The Bailli - Jonathan Summers
Johann - Yuriy Yurchuk
Schmidt - François Piolino
Brühlmann - Rick Zwart
Käthchen - Emily Edmonds
Concert master - Vasko Vassilev
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Monday, 20 June 2016

Going out with a bang (GPO/Don Carlo)



Verdi, Don Carlo (Gianluca Marciano cond. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at Grange Park Opera)
The prospect of an auto-da-fé replete with children thrown on burning fire amidst the heavenly surroundings of Grange Park makes one feel like an interloper in Candide. But this is no Voltaire: this was deadly serious. Having been a guest at the General Rehearsal it would be wrong to write at any length or offer criticism, but I think a short note saying what a super production it is would be acceptable. 
Heretics on fire. Image GPO/Twitter

The staging is pretty big, but well-judged to the theatre. It almost resembles a Bond villain’s lair. Vocals were strong, and the chorus were on particularly good form, which is as well as there is much for them to do. For the second time in a week I find myself writing ‘not my favourite Verdi’, but I do like it a lot, and the third act includes music not a thousand miles from the start of Otello. I think I may also say, without overstepping unwritten rules about Generals, that the BSO sounded absolutely terrific.
What makes all this rather heartening is that this is the last staged production (there is a concert Tristan mid-July - just a little piece you understand) by Grange Park Opera at Grange Park. They have gone out big, bold, confident and on top form. We await great things in the theatre in the woods.
Overall: a great production to say goodbye to the Grange
Don Carlo at GPO until 10/7; read about Theatre in the Woods here.
Cast and creatives:
Conductor: Gianluca Marciano
Director: Jo Davies
Set Designer: Leslie Travers
Lighting Designer: Anna Watson
Costume Designer: Gabrielle Dalton
Filippo II: Clive Bayley
Don Carlos: Stefano Secco
Elisabetta: Virginia Tola
Rodrigo: David Stout
Princess Eboli: Ruxandra Donose
The Grand Inquisitor: Alastair Miles
A monk: Jihoon Kim
Lerma: Alberto Sousa

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Just one baritone (ROH/Nabucco)



Verdi, Nabucco (Maurizio Benini cond. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House). 


I didn’t really want anything to break the spell of the Ring. But somebody would have to, and that person was Plácido Domingo. A revival of Daniele Abbado’s production of Nabucco at Covent Garden (seen 13th June) saw the second standing ovation within days for me. That’s probably about a year’s worth. This was a different beast however, and was really a question of lifetime achievement rather than outstanding performance. The one baritone is worth hearing and press reports suggesting his voice is tired etc are wrong. I can’t comment how this relates to the punch packed by his tenor voice, but you would write home about what remains. His stage presence is unsurpassed. Nabucco’s daughter Abigaille was Liudmyla Monastyrska who was magnificent powerful and limitless. The third voice about which you write home was John Relyea’s as Zaccaria.



An earlier relay is available to view online.

The production is more than serviceable. The temple is a series of concrete columns in a sand pit which resemble only the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. How well it works to make a connexion between the ancient Hebrews and the persecution faced by Jewish people in Nazi Germany, and the extent to which this supports the drama and music is doubtless one for debate. It is less of a stretch, however, than the idea of Risorgimento Italians singing va pensiero. And it was this most famous chorus which really shone. The huddles mass stood singing on the wings of a dove was deeply moving. I can’t recall the ROH chorus sounding better. Maurizio Benini got a careful account of the score which matched the drama onstage well. The reality is that this isn’t my favourite Verdi (either Otello or La traviata if you really wondered), but this was about as good a performance as you might hope of it.

Overall: worth it, and not just for Domingo.

Cast and creative credits:
Music - Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto - Temistocle Solera
Director - Daniele Abbado
Associate director - Boris Stetka
Designer - Alison Chitty
Lighting designer - Alessandro Carletti
Video designer - Luca Scarzella
Movement - Simona Bucci
Conductor - Maurizio Benini
Nabucco - Plácido Domingo
Zaccaria - John Relyea
Abigaille - Liudmyla Monastyrska
Ismaele - Jean-François Borras
Fenena - Jamie Barton
Anna - Vlada Borovko
Abdallo - Samuel Sakker
High Priest of Baal - David Shipley
Royal Opera Chorus
Concert master - Vasko Vassilev
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House