Thursday, 14 July 2016

Farewell Werther (ROH/Werther)

Massenet, Werther (Pappano, cond. Orchestra Royal Opera House)
I am losing a two (or five) favourite productions this week. The final Opera North Ring Cycle in Gateshead (notes to follow as I am still composing myself) finished on Sunday, and the final Werther last night at the Royal Opera. This will only be a short note as I have made exposition on the production and same cast already (first night, second visit).
Joyce DiDonato as Charlotte and Vittorio Grigòlo as Werther in Werther, Royal Opera House © 2016 ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper
Joyce and Vittorio in act IV. ROH/Bill Cooper

1. This remains a superb production, technically and stylistically; what remains are the limitations of the opera. What would you miss by starting with Acts III and IV? Lovely music I suppose, but dramatically? 
2. The cast is dreamy. Joyce is peerless, both in terms of singing and acting. 
3. All the same Vittorio's six stock tenor gestures begin to wear thing by the end, however magnificent he sounds. 
4. David Bizic gave his best performance in the run which I have seen. Vocally solid with much meaning, really very fine indeed.
5. Pappano's life still hangs on every last note.  
6. I finally 'got' the snow in that last scene. 
Overall: this is the production to beat. The limitations of the opera itself remain.

The journey (rehearsal of Winterreise)

It was a tremendous privilege to sit in on an open rehearsal of Winterreise. Bravely and generously Roderick Williams and Andrew West opened up their rehearsal, before they take it to Australia. It will be interspersed with extracts from Scott's diaries. We didn't hear them so I can't comment on that.
Very obviously I am not going to offer any kind of review on a rehearsal, but the process itself was worthy of a few notes. Firstly, the fact it is such a famous piece, something one knows well, and which is so startlingly dark, to see it unpicked a bit, rather than in hyper-polished concert performance is fascinating. Secondly, hearing the conversation between pianist and singer was worth a journey (even in winter). Williams has done fewer of these than West. What pause do we want before the final verse of 'Der Lindenbaum'; what about the speed of 'Traum' at the end of the first verse? How loud should 'nicht' be at the end of 'Einsamkeit'? Thirdly, the balance between the two is dictated by Schubert - he gives all the markings to the pianist rather than the singer.  Finally, it is a very different experience as the audience was very well behaved. At first there were three, but perhaps 18 drifted in by the end. No coughing. No noises at all. No applause either (that's the etiquette). All this made for a superbly intimate Winterreise. In a small practice room, it felt almost voyeuristic to peep in on this private process. Even with interruptions and discussion between them, it didn't lose much momentum at all for it, and it gained whatever it lost thus in intensity.
So thank you for the invitation. I'd do that again if I were invited.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

A Tristan to drive you insane (ENO/Tristan)

Wagner, Tristan und Isolde (Edward Gardner cond. ENO, Coliseum)
If romping in Seville (Friday 1st July) was an upper, the misery in Cornwall (2nd July) which followed was a most exquisite downer. For three mornings I woke up somewhere in the middle of Tristan. Tuesday morning it was the liebesnacht. And I blame the ENO production; it isn’t perfect but it is gripping.
Act I (Image ENO)
This production had many strengths. The vocal powerhouses of Stuart Skelton as Tristan and Heidi Melton are star attractions. When translation and staging allow them, they offer supreme singing. Skelton already is an acknowledged top-drawer Wagnerian tenor; Melton is likely to join him very soon. When Melton was moving higher her vocal power was striking. Matthew Rose was a real dream as King Marke. Perhaps most haunting was Brangaene’s (Karen Cargill)offstage warnings in  act two, which have an ability to touch a part of one’s soul which only Brangaene’s warnings can. The perfect colouring of these made these as prophetic as Erda but much warmer. Anish Kapoor’s sets were visually stunning. Act I was a sort of golden-coloured reverse-panopticon tryptic. Act II was a giant head/geode/planet which revolved to show the back after the liebesnacht (our lovers were insane). Act III saw a white screen with heart-shaped aperture on to that black which absorbs light (the right to which process I believe Kapoor owns, and of which this is a superb use).
Yet there were some big problems. Firstly, ludicrous costumes, most especially the rococo business( like leftovers from Saul) raised titters as Brangaene tottered in. The sets and perpetual motion demanded of singers prevented Heidi and Stuart from singing the libebesnacht with the breath-taking skill we know they can. Don’t get me wrong this was dark and erotic, but it just didn’t quite get there. Appropriately enough. 

An uncomfortable position for liebesnacht (ENO)
Then Tristan was thrashing about during Libestod: he’s dead, or opera doesn’t work. It was also at this moment that the translation let down Melton as it didn’t let her produce the right shape of sound with the English words. Anyone who requires a translation of that final, tender, devastating moment needs their soul replacing. And it was in this moment which the production did the most unforgivable thing: during the liebestod, Kramer – the great hope of ENO, had Tristan thrash about. This is simply beyond reason: it fundamentally changes the meaning of the opera. Tristan is dead, not in his death throes; otherwise is would simply be liebes. Without it, there is no erotic love death, and everything crumbles. The couple achieve satisfaction in the resolution of the Tristan chord but Tristan was alive and kicking. So I just shut my eyes and let those final bars do their work.
From the pit, Gardner got some special things from the orchestra. The first act was full of malice and threat, and it was obvious it wouldn’t end well. The second was deeply erotic, and the tragedy of the third was done perfectly. It’s just Kramer about whom I am deeply worried. ENO itself might well be somewhere on the way to its liebesnacht if he pulls off many more like this. He obviously doesn’t understand the opera. The libes without nacht would make this an entirely different opera All this made for a moving and memorable production. 
A decent amount of gore (ENO)
But I have to ask a question: would I have preferred to go and see a Kapoor exhibition and then a concert performance of Tristan with this cast. Something like Opera North’s dramatic concert performances of the Ring (everyone has been calling them semi-staged, I am pretty sure including their publicity material, but Farnes rebuked all on radio the other night: they are dramatic concert performances. With this cast? In a heartbeat.
Until 9th July
Astonishingly, despite cast and Kapoor, not in cinemas. Another mistake by Cressida.
Cast and Team:
Director: Daniel Kramer
Conductor: Edward Gardner
Set designer: Anish Kapoor
Associate Set Designer- Justin Nardella
Costume designer: Christina Cunningham
Lighting: Paul Anderson
Frieder Weiss: Video Designer
Tristan: Stuart Skelton
Isolde: Heidi Melton
King Marke: Matthew Rose
Kurwenal: Craig Colclough
Brangäne: Karen Cargill
Melot: Stephen Rooke
A Young Sailor: David Webb
A Shepherd: Peter van Hulle
A Helmsman: Paul Sheehan

Monday, 4 July 2016

A romp in sunny Seville (Glyndebourne/Barbiere)

Rossini, Il barbiere di Siviglia (Enrique Mazzola cond. London Philharmonic Orchestra, Glyndebourne)

The new Barbiere at Glyndebourne is a lot of fun, especially after the long interval, when the audience is easier, lubricated by sufficient quantities of Champagne and the contents of wicker hampers. Mazzola went for a very punchy explosive version of the score which added to the jollity.  Indeed it was a party atmosphere and the LPO were happy to join in with it. Mazzola was involved, vocally, from the pit, on several occasions. This is a light-hearted piece and it was presented as such. Joanna Parker had quite a simple set, which featured a blue-and-white tile pattern on the back, with some interesting holes cut in with light showing through.
Vocally this is a strong production. Björn Bürger as the barber was superb. His ‘Largo al factotum’, was singularly flawless. He didn’t miss a beat. Even if this wasn’t the most perfectly-coloured rendition of it, the energy and clarity of it was memorable. His presence on stage emitted dramatic energy. He is one to watch and from whom we will doubtless have great things. Danielle di Niese took a little while warm up and shed a slight roughness to her voice – that is it to say it didn’t glow with the apparent ease it did last summer. 
Danielle di Niese (Glyndebourne/Bill Cooper)
Danielle remains one of the very finest comic actresses and was an absolute delight in the part. Her protective dentist-uncle was the inimitable Alessandro Corbelli. He was a scream, beautiful singer and you wouldn’t even be close guessing his age. Berta (Janis Kelly) gets only one big number, but here it was a belter. Count Almaviva (Taylor Stayton) was tremendous. One of my very favourite roles is Don Basilio, and in this part Christophoros Stamboglis was absolutely smashing. Paid off, he took ages to leave, charging around the fairly simple set to great effect. 
Almaviva, Rosina, Bartolo, Bertha, Don Basilio, Figaro, some coppers
The chorus get an outing as policemen, in green uniforms and it is all a bit Pirates of Penzance.
The only thing disliked in our party were the gratuitous harpischords and pianos lowered down just before the interval. But they didn’t really do any harm.

Overall: comic opera as it should be. 
Until 17th July 

Cast and creative team
Conductor Enrique Mazzola
Director Annabel Arden
Designer Joanna Parker
Director of Movement Toby Sedgwick
Lighting Designer James Farncombe
Rosina Danielle de Niese
Dr Bartolo Alessandro Corbelli
Count Almaviva Taylor Stayton
Figaro Björn Bürger
Basilio Christophoros Stamboglis
Berta Janis Kelly
London Philharmonic Orchestra
The Glyndebourne Chorus