Limp, lacklustre conducting kills this Tosca
Teatro Verdi di Pisa, 29th November 2013, Nicola Lischi
The opening chords of the Scarpia motif, limp and lacking in compactness, followed by the heaviness of the Angelotti, or “fugitive” motif were instantaneous harbingers of the dismal outcome of this Tosca performance. There is no beating around the bush: the blame must be squarely placed upon the shoulders of Nahel Al Halabi, a conductor of Syrian background, who trudged through the score showing no pulse, no vigour, no energy, let alone punch and verve. His whole conducting moved as if slowly and laboriously making its way through molasses, almost an exercise in word spelling. And it was not just a problem of tempos and rhythm, because also the dynamic range was flattened and ironed out. He moved ponderously, one note at the time, and this all happened at the helm of the Puccini Festival Orchestra, whose members could surely play Tosca in their sleep.
A brave endeavour, with mixed fortunes
Welsh National Opera, Southampton, 27th-29th November 2013, Mark Pullinger
I came late to The Tudors, the televisual romp charting the marriages of Henry VIII, aired by the BBC. It spawned renewed interest in this period of history with its larger than life characters, on which Welsh National Opera obviously hoped to capitalise in its ambitious venture to stage three of Donizetti’s Tudor operas (Il castello di Kenilworth the omission) in a single touring season. Likewise, I came late to WNO’s Tudor trilogy, catching the final performances of the tour at The Mayflower Theatre, Southampton. Donizetti and his librettists played as fast and loose with English history as modern-day scriptwriters. Anyone anticipating a treatment as glamorous as the television bonkbuster would have been sorely disappointed though, its rich tapestry of characters and settings rendered almost entirely in funereal black in Madeleine Boyd’s all-purpose designs and costumes for all three operas. For such a colourful historical period, these stagings are perversely gloomy.
Barbican Hall, 28th November 2013, Stephen Jay-Taylor
If your principal exposure to live opera is here in London – or for that matter anywhere else in the UK – you could be forgiven for thinking Daniel Harding did not have all that much form in conducting any. Never seen at the Coliseum at all, his Covent Garden track record comprises just two operas – The Turn of the Screw and Wozzeck – in 2002 and 2006 respectively, and that’s it. But of course, if you’re a regular at either La Scala, Salzburg or Aix-en-Provence, you’d have encountered him practically non-stop over the past ten years or so. Moral: there is no honour for prophets in their own land. And the loss is ours, as tonight’s concert performance of what is basically a long love duet with prologue and coda most emphatically demonstrated.
Teatro del Giglio, Lucca, 23rd November 2013, Nicola Lischi
Obviously a critically informed performance of an opera, let alone one such as Carmen, is only helpful if it does not remain a mere exercise in scholarship but is translated into a real living theatrical experience, which is what happened in Lucca. First of all, most of the merit must be credited to Carlo Goldstein, a young conductor who emerged only four years ago after winning the International Conducting Competition of Graz and has since then appeared in some of the most important opera companies and concert halls in Europe. Supported by the distinguished Orchestra della Toscana, he conducted with impulsiveness and colour, while still favouring relatively relaxed tempos, never forgetting that despite the tragic dénoument, Carmen is still an opéra-comique, and that it’s not its fault if early on it came to be viewed as the prototype of Verismo opera and thereby falsified. Goldstein conducted with a languorous but not languid grace, which for many critics defines the difference between Bizet’s opera and the tempestuous and exotic novella on which it is based.
WNO's über-traditional staging outclasses the Met
Welsh National Opera, Southampton, 26th November 2013, Mark Pullinger
Renée Fleming, our hostess with the mostest at the Metropolitan Opera’s latest cinema relay of Tosca a few weeks ago, urged us – as ever – to experience opera first-hand and to ‘come visit the Met’ or to support your local opera company. The Opera Britannia excursions budget wouldn’t get you as far as York, let alone New York, so my local company it was and performing the same opera too. Tosca is very much the safe, financial bolster to Welsh National Opera’s Tudor trilogy in its autumn season – a crowd-pleaser of a production excavated from 1992, but which seemed even older. In the event, it proved a good deal better than its big-budget competitor from the Big Apple, both in terms of action as well as much of the actual singing.
A curate's egg of a Herring
Barbican Hall, 23rd November 2013, Miranda Jackson
The BBC Symphony Orchestra celebrated Britten’s birthday weekend with a performance of the composer’s chamber opera Albert Herring, a dark satire on Little England. The libretto is based on a short story by Maupassant but written by Eric Crozier (the original director of Peter Grimes) and gives us a wonderful insight into rural life in England c. 1900. Small-town life in Loxford represents the old, pre-Great-War utopia in which there was an established hierarchy and everyone knew his place. Pre-1914 it was hugely important for the Lady Billowses of this world to maintain the innocence of young men such as Albert Herring as a means of keeping the old world order. You need a compliant underclass with aspirations for little more than heavenly reward for it to be possible to send a whole generation to war. When Albert Herring is appointed May King by the citizens of Loxford, part of his prize is an edition of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the ultimate Protestant manual on how to live a chaste and puritanical life. The incongruity of the gift provokes a titter of amusement in a modern audience.
Our critic eschews Herring... served up with fromage instead!
GSMD at Milton Court, 23rd November 2013, Stephen Jay-Taylor
When this recital was first drawn to my attention, such is my regard for the Swedish mezzo that I immediately withdrew from reviewing Albert Herring some two hundred yards down the road in the Barbican, and enthusiastically opted for what I thought was an evening of French chansons and mélodies. What a prospect! Anne Sofie von Otter let loose on Chausson and Debussy, Fauré and Poulenc, perhaps some Gounod and Bizet, with maybe a little Délibes and/or Satie by way of let-your-hair-down encore material. All with her long-term musical accompanist Bengt Forsberg summoning up the necessary style. Rapture guaranteed, for which I arrived fully prepared.
A richly contemplative evening as classic production returns
English National Opera, 20th November 2013, Mark Pullinger
Confirmed Glassophiles will be delighted to see the return to the Coliseum of this superb production of Satyagraha, a non-narrative, abstract meditation on Mahatma Gandhi’s early life and struggles against racial discrimination in South Africa. On paper, it sounds a daunting prospect to the newcomer – an opera sung entirely in Sanskrit (as per the composer’s specifications, regardless of ENO’s mission statement) where the only surtitles are those projected from the auditorium to aid the chorus deliver its lines. The libretto is printed in the programme, but doesn’t represent an ideal skim-read before curtain-up. In reality, if you are willing to submit to Philip Glass’ haunting spiral of phrases and orchestration, it is a powerfully hypnotic piece of theatre drawing the observer in to Gandhi’s spiritual progress.
Slick and subtly disturbing supermarket nightmare
Glyndebourne on Tour, Milton Keynes, 19th November 2013, Sebastian Petit
And so to Milton Keynes, pursued by a perishing wind fit to crack the famous concrete cows. The Milton Keynes Theatre, as a venue, is one of the jewels in the ATG crown, big enough to house almost any touring product, with spacious and well-designed auditorium and foyers. Unfortunately it is marooned in one of those soulless retail areas surrounded by a sea of mediocre chain outlets which offer the same tat or that which passes for food in a thousand other identical areas the world over. Whether it was position or the icy blasts which accounted for the poorly populated house is hard to say. But opera audiences need to beware in straightened times, with a government almost wholly unsympathetic to subsidised art: to quote the hackneyed phrase “Use it or lose it”.
Cucchi's excellent New York setting let down by cast
Teatro Comunale di Firenze, 15th November 2013, Nicola Lischi
If Anna Bolena updated the dramatic characters of an opera seria, L’elisir d’amore - a comic and rustic rendering of the Tristan and Isolde tale – redefines the elements of the “commedia buffa” of the eighteenth century, giving birth to a new terminology. Thus, the specification of “melodramma giocoso” of Elisir acquires its meaning in the moving, pathetic and elegiac smile that perfectly counterbalances the “buffo” laughter of the classic comic opera. And Donizetti pushed this semantic subtlety of the words even further when he called Don Pasquale a “drama buffo”.
Royal Albert Hall, 10th November 2013, Stephen Jay-Taylor
This is the first occasion in a very long time that I can remember being in the Albert Hall outside of either a Proms season, or some theatrical fancy being given in the round. As a result, I was rather looking forward to encountering Britten’s masterpiece from the acoustically privileged position of the front half of the Arena, normally otherwise reserved for those of a standing disposition, but happily tonight liberally filled with seats. Alas, I was reckoning without the malign fate that invariably attends my increasingly reluctant excursions to SW7, which this time out ensured that I was instead stuck in Stalls Block J, which is to say at very nearly the furthest possible remove from the orchestral platform, and a black hole into which sound can vanish without trace, Kensington Gore’s very own acoustic Bermuda Triangle.
'Shabby little shocker' describes the production rather than the opera
Metropolitan Opera, 9th November 2013, Mark Pullinger
Putting tried and trusted productions out to grass and replacing them is always a gamble. ENO unveiled its new Magic Flute last week, a spritely filly though some will hanker after Hytner’s faithful old nag. When the opera is as iconic as Tosca and the production is Franco Zeffirelli’s, the stakes are raised. When the Royal Opera retired its Zeffirelli production, which had done sterling service since 1964, it replaced it with an utterly inoffensive one – handsome in its way. But when the Metropolitan Opera premiered Luc Bondy’s effort in 2009, there was a feeling that a backlash was inevitable, simply because it wasn’t Zeffirelli’s. This was my first opportunity to see Bondy’s staging, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t hesitate to call for the vet to put it out of its misery.
Stagecraft and illusion in McBurney's contemporary production
English National Opera, 7th November 2013, Mark Pullinger
For all the risk-taking in the operatic world, productions which are guaranteed bums-on-seats bankers are like Nibelung gold. To scrap not one but two such productions is a brave move for English National Opera this season. We shall see what Christopher Alden inflicts on Rigoletto in the spring, replacing Jonathan Miller’s famous Little Italy staging. Meanwhile, Nicholas Hytner’s much loved production of The Magic Flute has finally been laid to rest (after a few ‘absolutely your last chance to see’ revivals), replaced with this new one by Simon McBurney and Complicite, created at De Nederlandse Opera, co-producers, where it received its premiere last year. Stagecraft and the art of illusion are very much in focus in a contemporary telling of Mozart’s fairy tale pantomime which frequently delights.
Barbican Hall, 6th November 2013, Stephen Jay-Taylor
A boy could be forgiven for losing track. When the spoils of performance war for the 2013/14 season were divvied up amongst the powers-that-be at OpBrit Towers earlier this year, I wound up scheduled to review a brace of Damnation de Fausts, one at the RFH and the other at the Barbican, and no Berlioz Roméo et Juliette at all. In the event, the first Damnation on 26th September went west, and was replaced - quite without my conscious realisation until the night - by “Roméo” (reviewed here). And, then, after attending the sole remaining Damnation that was my lot - given last Saturday by the London Symphony Orchestra under Valery Gergiev (review here) - lo and behold I am summoned from my stupor for some last-minute subbing tonight, at yet another Roméo, meaning that I end up doing a pair of them instead. As Thatcher used to say, “It’s a funny old world”.
Barbican Hall, 3rd November 2013, Stephen Jay-Taylor
If things had gone according to plan, this would have been the second outing for Berlioz’s trail-blazing “dramatic legend” given by a major London orchestra at the start of the 2013/14 concert season. For unspecified reasons, the Philharmonia’s performance, which was to have opened their South Bank season at the end of September, metamorphosed into Berlioz’s other genre-defying hybrid, Roméo et Juliette, thereby depriving us now of the opportunity to indulge in a little critical compare-and–contrast at close quarters (though the LSO undertakes the Shakespeare adaptation later this week, so all is not lost). That change at the RFH left the tenor, poor Paul Groves, severely underemployed: and it would be amusing, if scarcely polite, to point out after tonight’s performance the fact that if you need difficult French repertory to be sung these days, the last place on earth you’d bother to look for it would be France, instead turning your gaze over 3,000 miles away to America (or perhaps indeed the Americas: this is repertoire Flórez should surely be investigating one day soon).
Keenlyside and Mattila excel in fine revival
Royal Opera, 31st October 2013, Stephen Jay-Taylor
Whatever reservations or animadversions I have to express about this revival of Wozzeck at the Royal Opera House, of which rather more anon, I think I’d still like to make it absolutely clear from the outset that if you have any serious interest in opera – or perhaps, rather, interest in serious opera - you should, without fail, make certain you attend at least one of the remaining performances on 5th, 8th, 12thand 15th November. Because, all theatrical considerations aside, this is the most musically accomplished account of the score I’ve heard in an opera house since 1989, strong enough to overcome and largely nullify a staging that both constricts and contradicts Berg’s own boiled-down version Georg Büchner’s unfinished source play.
Our critic sniffs out anarchic Shostakovich in HD
Metropolitan Opera, 26th October 2013, Miranda Jackson
Described at the time as “an anarchist’s hand grenade,” The Nose was not well received and soon disappeared from view, although Malko, one of Shostakovich’s teachers at the Conservatoire, recognised the quality of the score. It was composed in 1927-28 and given a concert performance, against Shostakovich’s better judgment, in 1929: “The Nose loses all meaning if it is seen just as a musical composition. For the music springs only from the action...It is clear to me that a concert performance of The Nose will destroy it.” It received its staged premiere in 1930 in what was then Leningrad. It is thought a single score survived in the USSR in the library of the Bolshoi Theatre, where it was re-discovered in 1974 by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky. Meanwhile, performance materials must have survived in the USA as the opera received its professional premiere at Santa Fe in 1965.
A production so good it practically defies description
ROH2, 24th October 2013, Miranda Jackson
The experience of hearing Music Theatre Wales perform The Killing Flower by Salvatore Sciarrino at the Royal Opera’s Linbury theatre on October 24th was so good it practically defies description. If you are in a position to travel to Llandudno on November 2nd or Swansea’s Grand Theatre on November 26th, do so and I personally guarantee you will not regret it. The Linbury had been re-aligned so that we, the audience, along with the performers felt as if we were in an alchemist’s crucible, such was the unparalleled intensity of this experience. Those who didn’t fall by the wayside were rewarded with a performance of pure gold.
Wigmore Hall, 21st October 2013, Llyr Carvana
After receiving warm reviews for her Musetta in La bohème at ENO and Lulu in American Lulu at the Edinburgh International Festival, this was the American soprano Angel Blue’s UK recital debut as part of the series of Rosenblatt Recitals at the Wigmore Hall, in a performance which I can best describe as something of a mixed bag. The programme she presented was decidedly ‘safe-playing’ and would not have been dissimilar to an entry for Cardiff Singer of the World. No bad thing in itself, but the results meant being neither blown away by witnessing the ‘birth’ of a new diva nor leaving thinking that an opportunity had been missed. This is not to do a disservice to Ms Blue; hers is an impressively powerful voice at times and there was much to enjoy.
A primitive, earthy, '80s classic
ROH2, 21st October 2013, Miranda Jackson
Mark Anthony Turnage’s Greek is a re-working of the Oedipus myth, perhaps the finest tragedy to survive from Ancient Greece and contains the traditional elements of pollution (miasma) and catharsis. Music Theatre Wales’ award-winning production at the Linbury Theatre (described by the composer who was present as “amazingly powerful”) presents a distinctly modern dénouement about transcendence and the power of love.