A run of success

Fresh from the rather disappointing performance at the rather special Bayreuth Festspielhaus, it was back into Proms season and a run of tremendous performances in the dismal Royal Albert Hall… it would seem that the Albert Hall has a message for Bayreuth: you can have a special and well-designed theatre, but it ain’t much use if what you put on isn’t up to scratch. It goes without saying that all of these performances would have been that much more special in a better acoustic, but they still achieved rare levels of intensity in Kensington’s cavernous barn.

First up was Nina Stemme’s Salome, accompanied by a tremendous cast and Donald Runnicles’ Deutsche Oper forces. It was an extraordinary performance, surely about as close to the ideal as it is possible to be: a voice of Isolde scale deployed with artistry that can still communicate the sinuous, insidious undercurrents that power the role so effectively. Stemme’s radiant portrayal gave passion and petulance to the anti-heroine, gloriously macabre in her final scene. She was surrounded by the required gallery of grotesques, notably a twitchy Herod from Burkhard Ulrich and sensationally scenery-chewing Herodias from Doris Soffel (her short, coiffed blond hair lending her a demonic Christine Lagarde appearance). Samuel Youn lacked the declamation for Jokanaan’s rather wearying condemnations of everyone and everything. Runnicles like his dynamics, notably in the Dance of the Seven Veils, where things started out with phrase-caressing slowness, and accelerated to a whirlwind close, and throughout the score had a wonderful transparency. The Deutsche Oper orchestra played gorgeously – as one might expect from an orchestra so steeped in Strauss.

Then it was Strauss again, this time Elektra‘s world of violence, hatred and subconscious torment. Semyon Bychkov led the BBC Symphony Orchestra: the climaxes were suitably thunderous, but what truly came alive were the more touching moments of the Recognition scene. The interlude that introduced it came alive as Strauss the tone-poet, whereas the rare tenderness of the dialogue following their recognition brought forth delicate string themes such as are familiar from Der Rosenkavalier. It was a wonderful account of the score.

The performance was elevated to the absolute top rank by another performance of astonishing intensity, and once again a breathtaking power and stamina deployed with great intelligence. When Christine Goerke performed Elektra at the ROH, I was distracted too much by audience members to be able to properly connect with the performance. No such problem here, for once. Goerke was wonderfully lyrical in conveying Elektra’s distress and restless energy for revenge. No sign of flagging at the end, her tone rock-solid throughout, and gleaming without tipping over into the excessively hard-edged. Her final dance culminated in a dramatic collapse on the Albert Hall stage, bringing to a close a performance of great power and drama. Accompanying her was the Chrysothemis of Gun-Brit Barkmin, a name new to me, but singing with a pleasingly clean, crisp sound that made her ‘little sister’ register well alongside this formidable Elektra. Every bit a match for Goerke was the experienced and utterly absorbing Klytemnestra of Dame Felicity Palmer: a haunted but vicious creation, so totally able to project the internal struggles and psychodramas of the tortured mother. For the men, Robert Künzli was the sappy Aegisthus, and Johan Reuter an urgent Orest.

Away from the Albert Hall for a chamber Prom at Cadogan Hall, and Dame Felicity Palmer was joined by Ian Bostridge and John Wilson leading the Nash Ensemble in a performance of William Walton and Edith Sitwell’s rather dotty Façade. That dramatic sense was evident in spades, with a rather more ‘inflected’ performance than I recall hearing before: lovely accents and comic round-offs! Bostridge got his chops around the twisting words, even though the amplification had him a bit too loud to be as clearly discernible, but he didn’t seem to have so much fun with it. The Nash Ensemble played beautifully: crisp articulation and lots of fun with the shifting sound world.

And back again to the Albert Hall, for the penultimate Prom: Beethoven’s 9th in a performance by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under an indefatigable Alan Gilbert, replacing Riccardo Chailly who was presumably at home nursing his broken wrist. Gilbert was a joy to watch, active in shaping orchestral dynamics and with great interaction across the orchestral sections. The symphony followed a short première: Friedrich Cerha’s Paraphrase on the Opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, a short and noisy piece which barely hinted at the open falling phrases of Beethoven’s work, other than to repeat them on various percussion instruments, including tubular bells, which led to an unfortunate desire to shout ‘will someone answer that door?’ When it came, however, the symphony was, for much of the time, a delicate affair, and in the third movement it suggested a performance that would perhaps have been more at home in the Queen Elizabeth Hall than the open expanses of the Albert Hall.  The contrast with the finale was tremendous, when all of life seemed to come flooding into the party. The massed forces of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Choir, Leipzig Gewandhaus Children’s Choir, the London Symphony Chorus and Members of the Leipzig Opera Chorus gave an emotionally overwhelming affirmation of joy. Soloists were Christina Landshamer, Gerhild Romberger (notable for an evident rich mezzo-soprano sound), Steve Davislim and Dmitry Belosselskiy. “Seid umschlungen, Millionen!“, indeed.

And then there was the Last Night of the Proms… more of which, anon…

 

 

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Bayreuth 2014: Tannhäuser.

A long post… Jump through the post if you want to skip ahead…

Festspielhaus Acoustic Tannhäuser
Festspielhaus Bayreuth - facade

Festspielhaus Bayreuth – facade

We are just back from a delightful driving holiday around Germany, the intended culmination of which was to be our first visit to the hallowed Green Hill for a performance – we had previously been for a day trip to the town. Our opera of choice was Tannhäuser, because it coincided with my partner’s birthday. We took advantage of the new policy for a select number of performances to go on sale for internet booking, a policy which was, as far as I can tell, forced upon the Festival organisers by the German Government, fed up with Bayreuth’s fabled inaccessibility in return for its federal and state subsidies. This was to join a select group of performances (mostly otherwise Glyndebourne) for which we paid, by quite some margin, more than we would normally. However, at €160 a ticket, we know we were going to a unique place, to experience something for which the magic derived from the location, the building and the history, as much as the performance itself.

Which is just as well – but we’ll come to that shortly. The first impressions, having arrived from the stunning city of Bamberg on the morning of the performance and having checked into our hotel, were to remind us that the town goes completely Wagner-doolally during Festival season. The hotel (the Ramada Residenzschloss: recommended) was entirely geared up to cater for Wagner-goers: free glass of sekt whilst you wait for the laid-on free bus transfer; meals available before the opera, or after, or packed up for you to take to enjoy during the hour-long intervals; Wagner busts, pictures, posters and statues aplenty. This continues into town, where no pharmacist, bookshop or outfitters can seemingly resist a Wagner-themed window display. You wouldn’t have thought there were enough knick-knacks to go around. For nine months of the year, this is evidently a town whose attics all heave with carefully bubble-wrapped Wagneralia. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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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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