Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The real bel canto (EIF/Norma)

Bellini, Norma (Gianluca Capuano cond. I Barocchisti)
Fans of Norma are doing pretty well this year, with Bartoli taking the Salzburg production to the Edinburgh Festival (seen 5th August) and a new production at the ROH in September. 
Bartoli as Norma. Photo: Hans Jörg Michel
Bartoli was of course the big draw to this. From an odd, fairly cheap seat produced after booking a last-minute meeting in Edinburgh, it was a delight to hear this secure, controlled voice offering a glimpse of pure bel canto. I say pure because this is the Biondi and Minasi pared-back version. It sounds stunning with gorgeous, generous period sounds from I Barocchisti made for a glimpse of the real bel canto, but showing how satisfying it could be dramatically as well as vocally. It wasn’t just about Bartoli. John Osborn made for a fine Pollione, and Rebeca Olvera’s Adalgisa was more than up to pairing with Bartoli. It was worth taking the chorus from Switzerland for the final scene alone. 

After a busy day starting shortly after 5am, not everything would have held my attention so effortlessly as this did. The production is clear and un-gimmicky. The transplant to Vichy France works beautifully and as the flames leapt so very high at the end, I almost wondered if this wasn’t another, Germanic redemption unfolding before my eyes. These were, after all, father-daughter issues. A simple equation seems to hold in opera: father + daughter + fight + flame = tears. 
Immolation. Photo: Hans Jörg Michel
Overall: a glimpse of the real bel canto
Cecilia Bartoli Norma
Rebeca Olvera Adalgisa
John Osborn Pollione
Péter Kálmán Oroveso
Liliana Nikiteanu Clotilde
Reinaldo Macias Flavio
Gianluca Capuano Conductor
Moshe Leiser, Patrice Caurier Directors
I Barocchisti
Swiss Radio and Television Chorus, Lugano

Fantastic Mr Figaro (Glyndebourne/Figaro)

Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro (Cohen. cond. OAE, Glyndebourne)
Glyndebourne is the perfect size of Mozart. The festival opened with Le nozze in 1934, and it has been a firm favourite ever since. When it is done as well as it was on Tuesday night, one fears one might simply drift away and be very happy about it too. As is so often the case on the most musically-outstanding evenings in Lewes, one finds the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in the pit. Under the baton (or hands) of Jonathan Cohen. This is the first time I have heard Cohen in the flesh. I have his two splendid discs with Arcangelo and Iestyn Davies and Matthew Rose (coincidentally seen in the audience on Tuesday with Isserlis). Cohen’s score was pacy without being rushed, and certainly not at the break-neck speeds of Currentzis. 
Le nozze di Figaro, Glyndebourne Festival 2016. Figaro (Davide Luciano). Image: Robbie Jack/Glyndebourne.
Figaro (Davide Luciano) looked and sounded the part, but undoubtedly, the finest singing came from Golda Schultz as Countess, who made so many old men cry it bordered on the hysterical. Susan Bickley, fresh from Wagnerian duties made for a wonderful Marcellina.
Le nozze di Figaro, Glyndebourne Festival 2016. Countess Almaviva (Golda Schultz). Image: Robbie Jack/Glyndebourne.
The Grandage production complements all of this perfectly. It opens in time unknown in a Moorish palace, until you see the clothes and the little red sports car (a short film on it here). It is on stage for all of thirty seconds, but that red Austin Healey is such fun. Figaro arrives, and whatever strictures do or do not apply in the 1960s in terms of feudal relations and harassment, what more resonant evocation of the individual liberty offered by the motor car in mass ownership could be found than the car? 

This is the sort of Mozartian evening at Glyndebourne of which one dreams. I hear not all at the festival love this production, which is hard to believe as the audience clearly loved every second of it. I won't forget the disco-dancing in time to the Mozart anytime soon. One member of my party claimed to have communed more deeply with Mozart than ever before. You can’t really ask more than that, can you?

Overall: fantastico.

Cast and Creative team
Conductor Jonathan Cohen
Director Michael Grandage
Revival Director Ian Rutherford
Designer Christopher Oram
Lighting Designer Paule Constable
Figaro Davide Luciano
Susanna Rosa Feola
Count Almaviva Gyula Orendt
Countess Almaviva Golda Schultz
Cherubino Natalia Kawalek*
Bartolo Carlo Lepore
Marcellina Susan Bickley
Don Basilio John Graham-Hall
Antonio Nicholas Folwell
Don Curzio Alasdair Elliott
Barbarina Nikola Hillebrand

*Natalia Kawalek replaces Serena Malfi, who has had to withdraw for medical reasons

Saturday, 6 August 2016

The Tree of Life (Glyndebourne/Vixen)

Janáček, The Cunning Little Vixen (Jakub Hrůša cond. London Philharmonic Orchestra, Glyndebourne)
Quite literally I dream of the sort of perfect summer’s afternoon I enjoyed on Sunday (31st July) at Glyndebourne. The sun shone, but not too brightly; breezes gentle enough not to spoil picnicking, but cool enough to warrant a cloak at least at the end.  
The Cunning Little Vixen
This is the sort of production which suits so well the intimate scale of Glyndebourne. There is a full height tree with a winding path behind which, by dint of Paule Constable’s clever lighting, serves as path and burrow by turns. Animals appear in natty costumes. A Vixen (Elena Tsallagova) is captured by a Forester (Christopher Purves), and kept as a pet next to a dog. Then she is able to trick a host of hens and to escape. Our Vixen then evicts a badger (Alexander Vassiliev) from its home, found at the base of the tree. The Vixen then sets up home with a Fox and has a family. The Poacher is engaged to Terynka, also the object of the Forester’s amour. Harašta marries Terynka wearing the new fox fur muff. Nature is resurgent and beautiful and the forest returns to life.
In terms of singing this was beautiful. Purves made for a convincing Forester. The other singers were new to me, I believe. Tsallagova in the title role was really wonderful, in voice and movement. Her husband had similar qualities (Alžbĕta Poláčková) in an unusual sort of trouser role. Dinah Collin produced really clever costumes for them all. Harašta (Alexandre Duhamel), and Priest and Badger (both Vassiliev) and Schoolmaster and Mosquito (both Colin Judson) provided very able support.
So often it was small touches which made this so splendid: the frog eyes, the fox tails for example. Some children in audience were sporting fox tails, much to the jealousy of some of our party. Winter was summoned effectivley by dead sunflowers and a white sheet.
The production was stylized, apparently after a Czech comic, and very effective it was. The rain/snow effect for example was wonderful, projected comic-style. Two points in this production were deeply moving. The blossom was lowered on to the tree, accompanied by an off-stage chorus (cartoon-style blossom) was surprisingly beautiful. 
The Cunning Little Vixen
At the end, before the beautiful tree that has provided shelter to Badger, Vixen and Forrester, the full panoply of life is shown. Death, sorrow, and happiness come and go, but life continues. We returned outside for a spot of cheese and dribble of port in the dying hours of a perfect summer’s day. It seemed the right thing to do.

Creative team
Conductor Jakub Hrůša
Director Melly Still
Set Designer Tom Pye
Costume Designer Dinah Collin
Choreographer Mike Ashcroft
Lighting Designer Paule Constable
Cast includes
Forester Christopher Purves
Vixen Sharp Ears Elena Tsallagova
Fox Alžbĕta Poláčková
Harašta Alexandre Duhamel
Priest/Badger Alexander Vassiliev
Schoolmaster/Mosquito Colin Judson

Thursday, 4 August 2016

La cage aux folles sur mer (All-male HMS Pinafore)

Gilbert and Sullivan, HMS Pinafore (Sasha Regan at the Curve)
What exactly do a group of men get up to when at sea? They entertain themselves by telling tales. So  goes the conceit behind Sasha Ragan’s All Male HMS Pinafore (seen 23rd July), where the sailors tell a story for below-decks amusement. The dial marked 'camp' is certainly set to 'maximum', but the story is more of less faithfully adhered to, excepting the 'cat' becomes a literal cat rather than the 'cat o'nine tails'. I think this did take away an important part of the G&S satire, but it hardly spoiled the show.
This production is not sold on the music or singing. Accompaniment is on piano (Richard Bates), and the singing is largely serviceable. These aren’t classical voices, but no amplification is used. I am not going to comment on these voices here beyond saying that they are entirely suitable to the presentation. The reality is this is closer to the pure entertainment than the attempts at symphonic art which can arise when the operetta is ‘upgraded’ to opera; here it is treated as music theatre. Three bunk beds, and a selection of crates are about it for staging. The emphasis on the story means this is more than enough space for the humour to come through. This is not great art, but it is brilliant fun. And sustained falsetto has to impress anyone.
Now we have new approaches to G&S, audiences are more than healthy. About half gave a standing ovation. There are two ways of taking G&S: as something where fun is the most important thing, or to treat it as serious music however frothy the plot. This takes it as nothing but fun, and I think that is, on balance the right thing to do. Flash-fry it, don’t slow-cook it. 
Overall: great fun.
Tour has finished. See