Monday, 26 September 2016

A discourse on good government (Chosun/Seonbi)

Hyun Ju Baek and Kwang Te Su, Seonbi (Yoon Sang Timothy Cho cond. Union City Philharmonic Orchestra, Carnegie Hall)
On Sunday 25th September a major event in the Korean cultural calendar in New York occurred. Seonbi was performed at the Carnegie Hall. Apparently “sold-out” there were in fact a great deal of seats empty, especially the cheaper ones. This is surprising given that the top whack was $350. The first ten minutes were a “VIP introduction” – the ambassador was there. With a mind addled by jet-lag, truthfully I could have done with finishing earlier and getting sleep, but it was part of the thing.
Curtain call: own photograph.
So how different was the opera itself? Other than being in Korean, not very is the answer. Musically, this was akin to light Dvorak (New World Symphony) and Puccini (Act II Boheme, perhaps). Some arias were stunning. ‘The Scent of October’, Ui Jun’s aria was given some lovely colouring by Hyan Ju Kim. The Children’s chorus ‘Oh Sobaek Mountain’ has a cracking tune.
What was the problem with this?
1.       Odd translation of libretto didn’t help. All the ‘dog poo’ business, as a cure for illness, may make sense in Korean culture, but this juvenile-sounding translation made this harder to fathom. At other times the translation was simply weak and the meaning was made slightly unclear.
2.       The plot was a thinned-out Measure for Measure: it was hard work when it was outright didactic diagloue about good government - it didn’t make for good plot (it is bearable as background for Simon Boccanegra).
3.       Indeed the libretto (albeit in translation) felt like a parodyof Western Opera. Much like a derivate-sounding score, this felt like a chance to do something radical and different was lost.
4.       Weaknesses in the score, which was pleasant enough, failed to create a backdrop to the drama. I would guess the orchestra were unused to playing for singers, given how unhelpful thye were to them. Neither volume nor tempi seemed to take in to account of what might help the singers.

In the second half, the plot became even stranger – including odd singing from a ghost. The third act offered a sort of budget Isolde – love vs. death etc. Had it ended there, it would have been stronger; however the inclusion of a second scene with all the cast singing away on stage made it seem something like a musical, or that bit and the end of Don Giovanni with the warning that all sinners will thus get their comeuppance.
All appeared in sumptuous costumes and acted out much of the drama on the generous stage of the Carnegie Hall. Backdrops provided quite close approximations of the original set. Not withstanding the powerpoint slide of VIP presentation and during curtain call, this was all pretty effectively done.
I don’t wish to appear snide: this was a lovely evening of music and singing. I had no real expectations, but I think means I hoped for something more different.

Overall: this felt more like a lost opportunity than anything else. The froth might actually take quite well commercially. Yet I was glad of the rare opportunity to catch this piece.

Chosun Opera Company
Conductor: Yoon Sang Timothy Cho
Sopranos: Jee Hyun Kim, Hyun Ju Kim, Ji Eun Jang, Hyo Won Lim, and Hye Rin Yoon
Mezzo-Sopranos: Hak Nam Kim, Eui Soon Sung, and Ran Lee
Tenors: Robin Yujoong Kim, Paul Han, Chung Gu Kim, and Woo Jin Lee
Baritones: Seong Kyu Lim, Hyong Sik Jo, and Gee Seop Kim
Bass: Do Jin Jung

A complicated 'Così' which is not entirely satisfying (ROH/Così)

Mozart, Così (Bychkov cond. Orchestra Royal Opera House)
I struggled to fathom, quite frankly, what this production was driving at much of the time. Was it really as simple a business as saying all (forms of art and enterainment) are just this same? Would any sane director really try to hollow-out Mozart’s most beautiful and profound opera? I think the effort to collapse the distinction between art and entertainment was at the heart of it. Gloger overplayed and over complicated this. It is not clear what was achieved in so doing.
Promotional image/ ROH
The singing was good. Daniel Behle (Ferrando) offered some tender signing which was frequently sublime, even if he was a little quiet at times. The other foolish young fellow was Alessio Arduini (Guglielmo). HE simply smouldered vocally. Both were stunning. The wicked puppet master (or producer in this production) was Johannes Martin Kränzle (Don Alfonso), who had a seriously creepy but amusing presence on stage. The darkness which I think this role ought to have, and certainly easily sustains, was wanting here.  There was, however, much comedy and decent singing.
The female voices were not as well-attuned to their parts. Corinne Winters (Fiordiligi) was very fine but never quite seemed to fit. Likewise Dorabella (Angela Brower) offered technically-good singing but something didn’t gel. Despina (Sabina Puértolas) was the best actor, in a role which offers much scope for good comedy (Danielle di Niese being a memorable example in a Met relay). When she negotiated a cash price with Don Alfonso at the end, this humour was much on display.
The problem was Bychkov. He was disappointed before at Covent Garden. It was under-rehearsed, I suspect, generic without reference to the production, and unsympathetic to the signing. I haven’t forgiven him for the risible Onegin in January. He is on the ‘avoid’ list now. This undermined fine singing and a passable staging which provided visual enjoyment and confusion in equal measures).
So this Così was less than the sum of its parts. But in the end of the day, even a bad Così (which this isn't) is still pretty good. Maybe they are all the same after all.

Overall: unwrapping several levels of complexity would give the production clarity and beauty.


Music - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto - Lorenzo da Ponte
Director - Jan Philipp Gloger
Set designer - Ben Baur
Costume designer - Karin Jud
Lighting designer - Bernd Purkrabek
Dramaturg - Katharina John

Performed by - The Royal Opera


Conductor - Semyon Bychkov
Fiordiligi - Corinne Winters
Dorabella - Angela Brower
Ferrando - Daniel Behle
Guglielmo - Alessio Arduini
Don Alfonso - Johannes Martin Kränzle
Despina - Sabina Puértolas
Chorus - Royal Opera Chorus
Concert Master - TBC
Orchestra - Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

At a glance

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Sizziling in Seville in September (ROH/Barber)

Rossini, Il barbiere di Siviglia (Henrik Nánási cond. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House).
This was the opening night the ROH wanted. The audience went out buzzing, rather than dissecting. This offered a profound blending of staging, pit, acting, characters and, perhaps most astonishingly, the vocal characteristics of each principal. The pit was under Henrik Nánási, very successfully. A new baton got a fun, lively score. The production is fun and lively too, with bright colours, geometric shapes, and a pretty effective staging. 
I have no criticism to offer of anything in this.  All voices fitted their parts perfectly. As Count Almaviva, Javier Camarena was outstanding. The ovation for ‘Cessa di pue resistere’ had me wondering if this was an alternative ending and the thing was finished. It was as close to an encore as I have seen, and I wish we had persevered. Vito Priante was a wonderful Barber, and his ‘Largo’ may not have been as breath-takingly secure as Bürger  at Glyndebourne, but it felt so very real, as he strutted through the auditorium, along the front row and across the pit. Rosina had attitude (Daniela Mack), and her uncle, Doctor Bartolo, José Fardilha, had hair which looked like Trump’s and the charm to match. Don Basilio (Ferruccio Furlanetto) is one of my various parts, and this guy was hysterical. Fiorello (Gyula Nagy) was very strong indeed. Berta (Madeleine Pierard), made much of the one big number she had. The chorus as police men and musicians were very funny.
Vito Priante as Figaro in Il barbiere di Siviglia, The Royal Opera © 2016 ROH. Photograph by Mark Douet

Overall this was such a special performance. Hottest ever day in September. London was baking. The Barber sizzled as if we were in Seville.

In rep until 11/10; on Radio 3 17/9 (tonight).
Cast and credits
Music - Gioachino Rossini
Libretto - Cesare Sterbini
Directors - Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier
Set designer - Christian Fenouillat
Costume designer - Agostino Cavalca
Lighting designer - Christophe Forey
Conductor - Henrik Nánási
Count Almaviva - Javier Camarena
Figaro - Vito Priante
Rosina - Daniela Mack
Doctor Bartolo - José Fardilha
Don Basilio - Ferruccio Furlanetto
Berta - Madeleine Pierard
Fiorello - Gyula Nagy
Ambrogio - Jonathan Coad
Officer - Donaldson Bell
Notary - Andrew Macnair
Royal Opera Chorus
Concert Master - Peter Manning
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

A curate’s egg in the catacombs (ROH/Norma)

Bellini, Norma (Antonio Pappano cond. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House).
This was something of a curate’s egg on opening night (12th September). Probably it was disappointing. Audience, critics and those on twitter were divided, and in many cases conflicted. The production was odd. Lots of crucifixes. Was it a catacomb? Was it a setting spare from Don Carlo? Why was ‘Cast diva’, the highlight of bel canto, that breath-taking aria, for many the point of Norma, sung from a gantry which looked like it had been welded at short notice for a papal visit to a remote island? The setting of all as types of Christian was odd: it made the text hard to parse, and it was unclear what the meaning of the thing was. That said it didn’t really get in the way of the music or the plot. 
Sonya Yoncheva in Àlex Ollé's Norma, The Royal Opera © 2016 ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper
Vocally, this wasn’t on particularly solid ground. The first to sing was Oroveso. Brindley Sherratt, and it seems he was singularly ill-cast, as the role did not suit his voice and he seemed to struggle throughout. The title role was Sonya Yoncheva’s, and she took some time to warm up; I was not entirely convinced by her dramatically, but her voice did get there. Adalgisa (Sonia Ganassi) had a fine voice but she was vocally close to Yoncheva, which conflated the plot slightly. Joseph Calleja was a big draw too. He too took a while to warm up, but when he got going he was splendid by the final scheme. As Flavio, David Junghoon Kim was very good indeed.
Production photo of Àlex Ollé's Norma, The Royal Opera © 2016 ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper
Children at the start of Act II were great, with more than a touch of the Glyndebourne Turn of the Screw about the stark white setting.
I’ve never been less than astounded by Pappano’s conducting, but tonight the pit seemed unsympathetic, too fast, and at times excessively percussive.
Overall, I think that by the end of the run, this maybe quite decent. However, it really underscored Bartoli’s brilliance. Bel Canto really benefits from period instruments: see Semiramide at Proms, or Norma in Edinburgh. 
When it got going, it was pretty decent, but essentially it was all a bit unever.
In cinemas 26/9, and on Radio 3 5/11.

Cast and creative team
Pollione - Joseph Calleja
Adalgisa - Sonia Ganassi
Flavio - David Junghoon Kim
Clotilde - Vlada Borovko
Cast & creatives
Music - Vincenzo Bellini
Libretto - Felice Romani
Director - Àlex Ollé
Associate director - Valentina Carrasco
Set designer - Alfons Flores
Costume designer - Lluc Castells
Lighting designer - Marco Filibeck
Conductor - Antonio Pappano
Norma - Sonya Yoncheva
Pollione - Joseph Calleja
Adalgisa - Sonia Ganassi
Oroveso - Brindley Sherratt
Flavio - David Junghoon Kim
Clotilde - Vlada Borovko
Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

You can do these things if you are Daniel Barenboim (Barenboim/Staatskapelle Berlin/Prom 69)

Mozart, piano concerto 24; Bruckner, Symphony 4 (Daniel Barenboim dir. and cond. Staatskapelle Berlin, BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall).
Firstly, Mozart, Piano Concerto No 24 in C minor. Barenboim was impressive here: he played piano, directed, then played again. Never once did he miss a beat. Is this one of Mozart’s greatest? Probably not. Will you hear it better? Certainly not.
If you are Barenboim, you have your own conducting stand.

Staatskapelle Berlin take applause. Own photograph.
Secondly, Anton Bruckner, Symphony No 4 in E flat major, 'Romantic'. Someone on twitter suggested that it was as if Barenboim himself had composed the piece, so sure what his reading of it. He had no score. Barenboim did leabe during movements, and mopped brow. I feared he might have been a little unwell. There wasn’t an encore. 
So a supremely careful reading of Mozart and Bruckner.