2013/14 – and 20 years – out on a high…

A busy 13 July 2014: Ariadne Boheme programmes

A busy 13 July 2014

A flurry of activity, and a trip to Switzerland, meant I never had a moment to capture thoughts on the two final performances of 2013/14 ROH season: both on the same day, La Bohème and Ariadne auf Naxos. Both were splendid.

We hadn’t gone for the supposedly ‘starrier’ cast, with Gheorghiu reprising her Mimì and Vittorio Grigolo playing Rodolfo, largely because I’ve become rather apathetic towards Gheorghiu, her cancellations and her increasingly staid artistry, especially after a most disappointing La Rondine a couple of years back. Instead, we went for the pairing of Ermonela Jaho and Charles Castronovo, both on fine form and taking part in a revival of John Copley’s production that was revived with a very welcome attention to the details. It’s ironic that the revival that comes immediately before its final outing next year should appear so fresh.  Jaho captured Mimì’s vulnerability wonderfully; Castronovo was in fulsome voice; Cornelius Meister made a great impression, with a reading of warmth and drama. The ensemble came together finely for the comic shenanigans, Markus Werba in particular a fine Marcello and the Musetta of Simona Mihai being more successful than many an exponent of the role, making Quando m’en vo more than a minor diversion. A wonderful afternoon.

After some mooching around the shops, then a bit of dinner, it was back to the opera house for a second viewing of the latest revival of Christof Loy’s (to my mind) wonderful production of Strauss’s warmly intelligent opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, with the magnificent Karita Mattila heading another excellent ensemble. Having been a loyal devotee of Mattila over the years, both for her gripping, extrovert stage presence and expressive voice, I was still unsure quite what she would bring to Ariadne’s lyrical alternation of lament and ecstasy. She was spectacular: stealing scenes as the terse and impatient Prima Donna of the first act, and bringing a vivid energy and yearning to Ariadne. Her Es gibt ein Reich had every well-worn phrase re-sculpted anew. Her Bacchus, Roberto Saccà, heroically charged into the ungrateful role and saw it through to the end, retaining an attractive, ringing tone. Jane Archibald’s Zerbinetta was a detailed portrayal, injecting flashes of the character’s thought processes into the coloratura of Grossmächtige Prinzessin, but was vocally on the small-scale side. One of the production’s great virtues is how it treats Zerbinetta at the close of the opera, and Archibald captured beautifully her crushing rejection by Harlekin in counterpoint to the elation of Ariadne and Bacchus. Ruxandra Donose contributed a distinguished and histrionic Composer. Sofia Fomina, Karen Cargill and Kiandra Howarth had great fun and blended beautifully as Naiad, Dryad and Echo (their Töne, töne, süsse Stimme has to be one of Strauss’s great operatic atmospheric effects). Jeremy White, Wynne Evans and Paul Schweinester, joined by Markus Werba as Harlekin in his second role of the day, even managed the feat of not letting the boys’ antics outstay their welcome. Once again, Pappano proved himself a great Straussian, with transparency in the score’s details, a full, grand sound and a buoyant forward energy that never allowed it to collapse into a lush, über-Romantic soup.

And that was 2013/14 brought to a close. 16 July 2014 had seen my 20th anniversary of first setting foot in the Royal Opera House, for a performance of La Fanciulla del West with Gwyneth Jones. It’s great to reflect on what the ROH has contributed to my musical enjoyment over those two decades: I am currently cataloguing my programme collection (complete, bar one performance of Faust in about 2004!) and will probably pull it into a Blurb book as a way of ‘gathering things up’ – will put something up here when I get that done.

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Glyndebourne Onegin: a sight for sore eyes

Room in the Winter Palace St Petersburg, detail

Room in the Winter Palace St Petersburg, detail

By way of stark contrast from the harsh ‘realities’ of Manon Lescaut or the confused banalities of Maria Stuarda, Glyndebourne offered the restrained and sensitive beauties of its production of Eugene Onegin. It was a sight for sore eyes.

The production is 20 years old this year, debuting at Glyndebourne in 1994, and its muted colours, emphasis on character-driven drama and exuberant dance interludes wear well. For a restricted view seat holder (in the Upper Circle Slips) the emphasis on use of the sides and rear of the stage can be a little frustrating, but you pays your money and takes your chances to an extent. The graceful curtains that separate scenes and, in the final palace ballroom scene, create a subtly shifting and disjointed perspective, and effective. The simplicity of the rustic scenes are beautifully appropriate to their setting. The emphasis really is placed on the characters to push this relatively simple story forward, with the sets providing a straightforward context for the action. Continue reading

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A reigning monarch

Mary, Queen of Scots, after Cornelius and William Cure, plaster cast of head, (circa 1606-1616) [NPG Creative Commons]

Mary, Queen of Scots, after Cornelius and William Cure, plaster cast of head, (circa 1606-1616) [NPG Creative Commons]

The Royal Opera have assembled a wonderful cast for their performance of Maria Stuarda, but one performance reigned supreme: Joyce DiDonato as the titular Queen of Scots.

First, though, much has been said of the production by returning directorial pair Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser – and equally by those who would lambast the production and by those who would reserve their ire for the booers on the opening night, each in their own rather sanctimonious terms. At the risk of joining the former group, having been at both the opening night, and not having booed, as well as a second viewing, I’m afraid I don’t have much beef with those who did boo. It’s a messy, lazy, clumsy affair which, given how much time productions have lavished upon them for designed, prototyping, development and rehearsal, ought certainly to have been much, much better. Continue reading

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Tale of Two Puccinis

I’ve been behind on my jottings, and the performances to be reflected upon are mounting up. For a start, there are these two Puccinis, both from The Royal Opera: their recent outing of the Jonathan Kent Tosca and a new production, also by Jonathan Kent, of Manon Lescaut.

The Tosca is a well-known commodity: replacing the Zeffirelli, it was calculated not to frighten any horses and enjoys a similar visual grandeur and narrative simplicity. After a 30-odd year gap, Kent has brought back Manon Lescaut with decidedly less caution. He has attempted to bring to modern audiences some of the shock experienced by the first readers of the 1731 Abbé Prevost novel, and to do so, Kent and his design team have moved the action to a swanky three-storey hotel-cum-casino; this is followed by an Amsterdam-style glass-encased brothel; thereafter to the quayside for scenes of trafficked women; and ending on a motorway flyover as a contemporary vision of the ‘desert’ depicted in the original libretto. Continue reading

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Giddy Gilliam in Barmy Berlioz

benvenuto cellini firenze

Benvenuto Cellini bust on the Ponte Vecchio, Florence.

Terry Gilliam’s second foray into opera direction, again Berlioz, is if anything more successful than the first. I hadn’t known any of Berlioz’s 1838 opera Benvenuto Cellini, which tells the story of Cellini’s brush with both papal and paternal wrath in his simultaneous failure to cast a monumental statue of Perseus and his attempts to woo the daughter of a papal exchequer. The work seems sprawling, to put it mildly, and rambles along with rousing ensembles punctuated by less distinctive recitatives and short arias. Gilliam’s madcap treatment of the work would appear to meet its flaws head on in a spirit of riotous abandon. Continue reading

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ROH Carmélites

Notre Dame - praying figure and stained glassThe Royal Opera’s run of Dialogues des Carmélites came to a close last Thursday: I had seen the previous Saturday (5th) and the opening night. They were performances of remarkable power.

After the opening night, I had wanted to wait until I saw the later outing to capture my thoughts on the performances. However, even then I was at something of a loss as to reflect on their potency. After a rather ‘wordy’ – though fascinating – body to the opera, the measured tread and more expansive lyricism of the nuns’ closing Salve Regina renders it extraordinarily powerful. Continue reading

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Kavakos’s enthusiastic Beethoven

Following a rather slow day, having got back to London about midnight from Glyndebourne’s disappointing Rosenkavalier, the evening was given over to the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonidas Kavakos in an all-Beethoven programme at the Barbican. It was just the tonic. Continue reading

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