June 2006


Image borrowed from www.musicweb.uk.net

Image borrowed from http://www.musicweb.uk.net

I believe strongly in recycling one’s rubbish, so when the curtain went up for Bluebeard, I was pleased to see the ROH were re-using the pile of rubble from Götterdämmerung earlier in the year. Or maybe it was left over from some building work? Anyway, it was spread all over the stage (along with a huge broken chandelier – from Phantom of the Opera?), and I was initially concerned that Albert Dohmen (Duke Bluebeard) and Christine Rice (Judit) would trip over a plank and skewer themselves on a rusty nail or something, but happily they were sure of foot.

This may sound like I’m being rude about the visual aspect of the performance. I’m not; it was actually really effective. The castle walls and doors were fairly plain and sombre, but the way different coloured lights were used could change the character each time a door was opened, and there was a real sense that the castle itself was alive, and malignant, almost another character, conspiring in the ill doings of its master. If you’ve read the novel House of Leaves, you may have an idea of what I’m getting at. There was a stunning visual moment at the opening of the 5th door, when the walls slid apart to reveal a huge moon, and it was very effective (if not very subtle) that the 7th door seemed to appear from nowhere to loom hugely over a tiny Judit. (Dead psychological, innit.)

The orchestra were on good form as usual, and while I always find myself involuntarily listening out for the woodwind, in this performance I also particularly noticed the percussion section, who had plenty of interesting stuff to do.

The singing, to me, seemed of very high quality, and while I probably wouldn’t rush out to see anything purely on the strength of Dohmen or Rice, I’d be pleased to hear them again. I don’t know this opera well enough to really comment on their portrayal of the characters, but I did rather like the way Dohmen seemed to add just a slight touch of wry humour to Bluebeard, in his deadpan delivery of lines like ‘My castle does NOT sparkle’ and ‘Yes, that is my torture chamber’. I wish they hadn’t dressed him in a dreary office worker’s suit and tie, though.

A while back I was discussing the Bluebeard concept with a friend, and he said he thought of it as very much ‘a bloke’s opera’, pointing out that it’s a resonant (even archetypal) story – a man starts a relationship with a woman, and it’s going well until she starts digging in his past. She keeps hassling him to know more and more, even though it makes her jealous and eventually ruins it all. A man needs his privacy. However, although I can understand that interpretation, I think the gender of the characters is incidental, and could equally well apply the other way around. After all, it wouldn’t be such an unusual story if a woman started a relationship with a man, and at first he thinks she’s perfect, but then he is irrationally horrified when he finds out that she has a past, and loved other men before him (some probably with bigger knobs than him, too) and maybe done other stuff that he doesn’t approve of… People’s histories. Jealousy. Total inability to just let things lie. And a castle that drips blood. Excellent stuff.

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And then, in the second half, Erwartung. This was using the same set as Bluebeard ended with, which is slightly cheeky, as Schoenberg was apparently particularly insistent that the forest should be represented naturalistically (i.e. a forest, not a pile of rubble, a chandelier and a big door). It did work, though, and to be honest, not knowing the work whatsoever, I wasn’t sure if The Woman (Angela Denoke) was literally wandering round a forest at night being scared by stuff, whether she was dreaming, semi-dreaming, hallucinating or just barking mad. Having read up on it afterwards, I now know that she was literally supposed to be in a forest, but that the bloke in black who was wandering round with her and occasionally grabbing at her isn’t actually doing so in the original. Now I understand why people were talking about there being ‘a twist’: The Woman happens to find a sword lying around (one of Bluebeard’s) and carries it around, occasionally stabbing at dark shapes in the forest that scare her, one of which happens to be Bloke in Black, which is a quite valid explanation of why she should later discover his corpse on the ground. The fact that the two characters were dressed like Judit and Bluebeard was probably not necessary for the drawing of parallels, but worked.

I really liked the sound of Denoke’s voice, especially in the lower register. The music, although pleasant, I have to say really didn’t grab me hugely, so I’d be very interested to hear her sing something else, quite different, in the future.

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Image borrowed from www.musicomh.com

Image borrowed from http://www.musicomh.com

Tosca was the 2nd opera I ever heard, and along with Carmen and the Ring, were the only operas I knew at all, until a couple of years ago. In fact, come to think of it, Tosca is the only opera (apart from the Ring) that I’ve seen twice live. Shame that I have such a rubbish memory that I can’t do much in the way of comparisons, as all I can remember of seeing it before was James Morris stomping around as Scarpia with long boots and a riding crop.

I know lots more about opera now, of course, but even so, I ain’t a singer so please take any comments about the singing with a big pinch of IMHO.

So, although I generally try and avoid other reviews, I could hardly fail to notice all the discussion about Angela Gheorgiu’s unusual interpretation of the character of Tosca, and her (alleged) slagging off of Callas. People have been saying that she’s playing Tosca as too innocent and ‘girly’, more like a Mimi. I think they’re wrong. I think that in Gheorgiu’s version, Tosca is one of those awful forty-something women who put on a girly-act, simpering around as if they’re teenagers (not that actual teenagers are usually anything like that). Older women who’ve been around a bit and ‘seen the world’ can be very attractive, but not when they’re prancing affectedly around in yellow dresses with bows in their hair like little miss buttercup – although there are some men (i.e. Cavaradossi) who clearly do find this behaviour attractive. I think it really worked. Also, as it went along, the facade began to crumble, and she began to show little bits of real emotion, so that by the end she was actually a fairly sympathetic character.

As for the voice, I can’t say that Gheorgiu’s voice has ever really moved me (but to be fair, that’s the case for most sopranos) but I did enjoy this. I was really quite unconvinced in Act 1, but in 2 and 3 she really grew on me. Not being a linguist, I’m not fussed about things like pronunciation (although I’m fairly sure that Vissi d’Arte doesn’t end with the word ‘co-zoo’), and she really made a lovely sound on the high pianissimo bits.

But why is this opera called ‘Tosca’ anyway, when it was so clearly Scarpia’s show? Those who have read my reviews before may have noticed that I quite like Bryn Terfel, and also particularly like my bass-baritones in evil mode. Hence, I was looking forward to this one, and he did not disappoint. In fact, totally dominated the stage whenever he set foot on it, and sounded great. Fantastic stuff, even if, what with his white flouncy shirt and the candle-lit set, he did look a bit too reminiscent of Meatloaf in ‘I would do anything for love (but I won’t do that)’. Bizarrely, La Gheorgiou didn’t seem to appreciate Mr Terfel’s charms, and objected to him leaping on her on the dinner table, but maybe she was just worried about getting pie on her head.

I’d been looking forward to hearing Marcelo Alvarez live, so was disappointed that he was sick. Nicola Rossi Giordano from the second cast stood in at short notice, and (I’ll stick my neck out here) seemed rather nervous to be out there a week earlier than expected. At times he sounded great, but then at other times sounded rather strained, as if he had his shoulders up somewhere by his ears. Well acted, though, if that doesn’t sound like damning with faint praise (which it’s not supposed to be).

I also need to mention the orchestra. Although, unusually, there were a few moments in the middle where I didn’t think the tuning was quite spot on, there were also times when they sounded so good it gave me the shivers. The brass in particular caught my ear this time. Also, some lovely woodwind-y bits stood out, like the contra-bassoon, and the piccolo (a Mr Philip Rowson, who I really think I ought to send a fan letter to, I like his playing so much).

There was one other voice (apart from Terfel’s) that really stood out to my ears: Carlo Cigni as Angelotti. I’ve never heard of him before (yeah, I know, opera n00b I am) but what a lovely sound, in – sadly – such a little role! Will definitely be looking out for him in the future.