PROM 15: Wagner (Die Walküre)

If there is going to be a particularly hot spell in the London summertime, tradition dictates that it will coincide with the Proms season’s most popular concerts. And thus it was this year, with heatwave peaking for the Proms’ first (and entirely sold-out) full Ring Cycle, under Daniel Barenboim. I know a few hardy types who not only did the whole cycle, but with standing tickets, but I’m afraid I just went to one of the four, and got a seat for it. (I did consider doing the lot, but I’m a bit Siegfrieded-out this year, and  Götterdämmerung clashed with another event.) Now, the Albert Hall’s air conditioning has improved considerably in the time I’ve been going there, and the place was pleasantly cool at the start, but over the next few hours it proved no match for the combined heat of a few thousand Wagner fans.

I didn’t care. The performance was fantastic, rising far above any superficial bodily discomfort, and I was so glad I’d gone to hear it in person. I’ve commented before on the special nature of being in the same physical space as live acoustic music, with nothing but vibrating air between the instruments and your ears, and this was a prime example. In some other people’s reviews I’ve read a few negative comments about Barenboim’s extremes of tempo and dynamics, and apparently some kind of intra-orchestral disagreement going on at one point, but no untoward incidents were visible from Row T of the amphi (the area where I’m usually to be found – back centre), and I can report that the dynamics were so perfectly judged – the pps as soft as they could be without ever slipping into inaudibility – that they must have had somebody in the back row for the soundcheck. As for the tempi, well, with such beautifully-realised orchestral colours and textures, who wouldn’t want to luxuriate a little? I didn’t mind.

I won’t go into great detail about individuals, but can report that (IMO) Bryn Terfel still owns Wotan, Nina Stemme is a totally kickass Brunnhilde, Eric Halfvarson continues to do a good line in Nasty Bass roles, and Ekaterina Gubanova’s lovely tone and expressive, musical phrasing almost won me over to the frequently-dislikeable Fricka. Anja Kampe and Simon O’Neill were solid as the star-crossed twincest couple.

Orchestra prize of the night is for the delicious solos of the Staatskapelle Berlin’s cor anglais player (NB: Anyone know the name, so I can include it? I didn’t have a programme), with bass clarinet and oboe as runners up. Piccolos – very nice, but I wanted to hear MORE of you in the mix. Anyway, big hugs to all.

PSM 2: Britten, Tippett, Holst and Berkeley

I’m not the biggest fan of strings-only music, but if I’m going to listen to the stuff, I think I want it played by the Britten Sinfonia. Let me clarify that. Listening to consort music, where you have a bunch of basically the same instrument in different sizes, whether it’s strings, recorders, saxophones, or whatever, is like watching black and white films. Yes, it can be very beautiful, and there have certainly been some masterworks created in that medium… but colour is important to me, and after a while I find myself yearning for a splash of red, or an instrument from a different family. Does that make sense?

Nevertheless, the BS strings (under Sian Edwards) combined careful attention to detail with such vibrancy, and precision with verve, that I didn’t mind at all that they’d left the other half of the orchestra at home. First up was Britten’s Prelude and Fugue – a new piece to me, but an instant hit. (In fact, weirdly, it sounded almost exactly the kind of music I was unsuccessfully attempting to compose while at university, until the composition tutor told me not to bother.) Holst’s St Paul’s Suite – ach, they really did their best to give the thing life, but it’s just dull music. I do not like a folksy jig (well, unless I’m one of the ones playing it, and it’s being taken insanely fast – at which point they can become quite fun). The last string piece, Tippett’s Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli was a bit clever-clever, but did contain some lovely bits, particularly in the duets between leader and principal 2nd (I think – again, no programme, no names).

And the vocal works, where I got my wish of something non-stringed thrown into the mix. Lennox Berkeley’s Four Poems of St Teresa of Avila really do deserve to be played more often, and what a great piece is Britten’s Phaedra! Sarah Connolly, whom regular readers will know I like quite a lot, really has become Queen of psychologically-troubled classical anti-heroines. Taking a day out in between her Glyndebourne performances as Rameau’s version of the role (Phèdre, in Hippolyte et Aricie) (read her talking about it here), in 15 brief minutes, she nailed the character in all her splendidly violent emotions. It’s not often I leave a concert and can’t wait to hear a piece all over again, but thanks to the magic of BBC iPlayer, on this occasion I can do so. And suggest you do the same, while it’s still up.

PROM 34: Vivaldi (The Four Seasons)

This. Yes.

All of the good things about Nigel Kennedy concerts, and none of the bad. Spirited iconoclastic solo and orchestral playing, a fresh and unique twist on a long-beloved piece (with lots of additional material, but – importantly – no movements left out), proof of the existence of that rare thing: Good Crossover music, no bloody electric violin in earshot, and minimal talking. Loved it.

My full review is here.

* There was a bit of talking, but it was right at the end. And some guy in the audience shouted “bollocks” loudly in the middle. Did you hear that on the radio, or did they do a quick edit? (I don’t know if he objected to the vague political sentiment being expressed, had Tourette’s, or was just worried it was going to turn into a 20-minute monologue and wanted to hear more music.)

Prom 55: Lutosławski, Shostakovich & Panufnik

Surprisingly, this was the Warsaw Philharmonic’s first visit to the Proms, invited as part of this year’s focus on Polish music. About time too, one might say, and particularly so with it being both Lutosławski’s centenary year (and almost Panufnik’s too, shy by a year), and this the farewell concert of outgoing Artistic Director of twelve years, Antoni Wit. It was also only right that they should debut with Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra, composed specially for this orchestra – well, an earlier generation – in the 1950s, and they brought a proprietary authority to the work, from the driving timpani thumps of the opening. Lutosławski here uses melodic material from the Polish folk music tradition, but within the context of a highly-structured compositional form, with more than a nod to Bartók and Stravinsky. This was a high-definition performance which paid great attention to all the fine details of phrasing, dynamics, colour combinations and textural contrast, without ever compromising on overall shape or momentum… [read more here]

Prom 67: Pärt, Britten, Berlioz & Saint-Saëns

Tonight’s Orchestre de Paris Prom was very much a concert of two halves, in the first of which they got to show their sensitive, introspective side, reflecting on the nature of life and lamenting too-early death, then becoming considerably more extrovert in the second for some free-spirited buccaneering, and what the programme notes describe as “vivid, prolonged and grand noise”. It was, in fact, rather like attending two short concerts back-to-back – and both equally good, in their different ways.

The first half consisted of Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten and a work by Britten himself, the Violin Concerto – a perfect pairing…   [read more here]

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RFH Dutchman

Smiling allowed on the programme cover, not in performance.

Opera being a strongly visual art form as well as a musical one, the idea of a pure concert performance seems a little strange to those unfamiliar with the form. However, removing the necessity for singers to run around (often in uncomfortable-looking costumes), negotiate (sometimes uncooperative) props and scenery, and bodily convey their thoughts and feelings in a manner visible to amphitheatre Row W, allows for 100% concentration on the music, in particular the expression of character and emotion through voice alone. This is no problem at all for Bryn Terfel, who took full advantage of the Royal Festival Hall’s acoustic to give us an unusually sensitive, human Dutchman, that both allowed him to show off the full expressive, dynamic and tonal range that has made him such a favourite, while being no less convincing in the role for being wearing a tuxedo rather than oilskins and boots… [read more here]

Programme

Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer

Performers

Bryn Terfel (Dutchman)
Anja Kampe (Senta)
Matti Salminen (Daland)
Martin Homrich (Erik)
Liliana Nikiteanu (Mary)
Fabio Trümpy (Steersman)
Zurich Opera Orchestra & Chorus
Alain Altinoglu (Conductor)

My Proms visits this year – some formal reviews (links), some informal thoughts and observations.

PROM 2: Wagner (Die Meistersinger)

To tell the truth, I was unconvinced of the wisdom of spending 6+ hours in a hot tin can, listening to an unstaged concert performance of my least favourite* Wagner opera. However, it was really very enjoyable indeed. Yes, even Act 1, which has the potential to be deathly dull, but was in this case brightened immeasurably by Pogner, or rather by Brindley Sherratt’s special ability in making the most undramatic, static characters’ narratives implausibly gripping.

My other main reason attending this concert was, of course, to hear Bryn Terfel. I’ve enjoyed him in every opera I’ve heard him sing, but particularly in Wagner, and his Hans Sachs was really something special. In addition to some gorgeous singing, his inhabitation of the character brought out the humorous, mournful and contemplative aspects to perfection. Christopher Purves’s Beckmesser was also genuinely funny — a silly and pompous man but without the nastiness he is sometimes given.

The vocal (and physical) acting of the cast made this so much more than a standard declamatory concert performance, and in fact better to watch than at least one staged performance I’ve seen. Dare I say that I also found it helpful not to have surtitles? Knowing roughly what the characters are wittering on about but being spared the exact words left me free to give my full attention to the music; attention which it very much deserved.

(* Least favourite of the 8 I actually know – also including Ring, Tristan, Parsifal and Dutchman. Haven’t got to grips with Tannhäuser or Lohengrin yet.)

PROM 18: Dean, Mahler, Shostakovich

I found Brett Dean’s ‘Amphitheatre’ pleasant on the ear and atmospheric, but I have to say, I am having some trouble remembering any details about it afterwards. As for the selection from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, while Mahler’s music has been steadily growing on me since university, it’s a slow process, and I’ve made a lot more progress with the symphonies that I have with the songs. Some of them are quite definitely beautiful, but others are somewhat irritating, and those in between I find too short for me to really get a grip on. Nevertheless, Ekaterina Gubanova’s voice sounded gorgeous (right from the back of the circle), and she performed them with such charm and affinity for the music that it would have been impossible not to enjoy.

I have mixed feelings about the second half. Shostakovich 10 is one of my all-time favourites, and I know it very very well. On the positive side, I think this is such a wonderful symphony that it would have to be a poor performance indeed (which this obviously wasn’t) for me not to be moved; on the negative, I couldn’t help picking up various tiny errors that in most pieces I would probably miss. Also, as a result of having performed it a few times, I found myself unintentionally focusing even more attention than usual on the woodwind section, and in particular the piccolo. All clearly excellent players, the micro-section ensemble playing (e.g. the three flutes) was very good indeed, but the and gelling within and between the orchestral sections perhaps less so. In general, the faster, louder passages worked the best — for example, the frenzied second movement was stunning — whereas the sparser passages sometimes could have done with a little more nuance of colour and dynamic, in particular, daring to drop down to a real pianissimo (which only the clarinets really did).

In an aside note, this was a particularly bad concert for selfish, arrogant audience behaviour. There have been various debates in various forums on the old clapping-between-movements chestnut, and although I’m firmly on the side of showing appreciation at the end of a piece of music rather than in the middle of it, I can see why sometimes, after a brilliant cadenza or particularly exciting movement, applause might be spontaneous, and on rare occasions, even welcome. But how can anyone listen to the magical time-stopping piccolo solo that ends the first movement and hangs in the air, and then want to break up the brief pregnant silence before the second movement launches, by slapping their hands together? And if only the clapping was all… While I’m very much in favour of letting children experience orchestral music from an early age, for the sake of other audience members who have parted with their hard-earned cash to hear some music, it might be worth waiting until said child is capable of sitting quietly for more than five minutes at a time. And if Shostakovich had wished the quiet, contemplative moments of his symphony to include the chattering of some teenage girls, he probably would have written it into the score. Yes, I’m touchy about this. But I do think it’s both disrespectful to the musicians pouring their hearts out on stage, and selfish to assume that your conversation is important enough to be worth disturbing the listening experience of the people around you. Anyway, in this case the talkers were sitting right in front of me, so it was not difficult to lean over and politely request they keep their voices down during the music. And then tell them again, less politely. And then administer a quick kick to the seat when they started up yet again.

Rant over 🙂

PROM 21: Berlioz, Wagner

A bit of a mixture, this one. At some points it sounded sublime, at others, frankly, a bit ropey. Simon Rattle’s interpretation of the score and shaping of the music was superb, and there were a lot of lovely sounds coming from the OAE, particularly the warm, rounded    tone of the strings. However, Wagner’s woodwind writing can be tricky in terms of intonation, and unfortunately there were moments where this showed; in the brass, there was great enthusiasm, which sometimes incurred the sacrifice of accuracy. (These issues, interestingly, did not show up in the Berlioz at all.)

Of the singers, Franz-Josef Selig was a wonderful rich, dark King Mark, and the other highlight was Sarah Connolly’s Brangäne, with a particularly wonderful moment being her voice echoing down from the castle tower (i.e. Gallery). Violeta Urmana’s Isolde sometimes seemed underpowered — although I’m quite prepared to believe this was due to the vagaries of the Albert Hall acoustic — and unfortunately, Ben Heppner appeared to be in some vocal distress at the upper end of the vocal range; however, they both pulled out all the stops for So sturben wir, the heart of the act, to great emotional effect.

PROM 35: Ligeti, Tchaikovsky, Langgaard, Sibelius

“Countless thorns: silence. My silence: the beating of my heart … Night.” So began tonight’s concert, with Ligeti’s setting of Sándor Weöres’s poem Ejszaka (Night). Introspective in feel, and with every word of the text described in the harmony and texture, it set the scene for what at times was quite an other-wordly evening of music. While this short piece and its companion, Reggel (Morning) show the young Ligeti exploring tone clusters and harmonic layering, they provided opportunity for the double choir to display a variety of tone colours, dynamic changes and rhythmic vocal effects.

As Night segued smoothly into Morning, so did Ligeti into Tchaikovsky. With only the tiniest of pauses, Thomas Dausgaard directed his attention from choir to orchestra, Henning Kraggerud appeared as if from nowhere, and before anyone had had time to even think of coughing, shuffling or clapping their hands, the concerto had started. This was more musically effective than one might have expected, perhaps due to the Ligeti ending on the notes D and A, and the violin concerto being in D major… [read more here]

PROM 41: Scriabin, Stravinsky

I nearly didn’t go to this concert. And that would have been a mistake, because it was absolutely wonderful. However, at some point during the afternoon it occurred to me: LSO – Gergiev – Firebird – er, what were you thinking? So after my meeting I jumped on the tube, legged it down to South Ken, and totally prommed it like it was the 1980s. By that I mean, up in the Gallery (with a cooling breeze and loads of personal space), lying down on the floor with my eyes shut (because I have no need to look at another orchestra – I see orchestras all the time and they usually look much the same), alone (because when I was a teen I knew even less people who shared my taste for 20th century orchestral music than I do now), and even with some chocolate and a detective novel for the interval. Great stuff.

And brilliant music, yes. I didn’t know a note of the Scriabin, so think perhaps I won’t even try to go into any descriptive detail – I just allowed myself to be swept away by it. Firebird, though, I know well – it was probably the first piece that really turned me on to Stravinsky, but also it’s one of the orchestral flute parts* I’ve spent the most hours practising, as it is bloody difficult. (Well, it was difficult for me – daresay it’s a piece of cake for Gareth Davies!) Anyway, this was a well-nigh perfect performance of it: that so-important precision of rhythm and ensemble, coupled with equally-important fire, energy and fluidity. Also, while it can be impressive when sections blend smoothly (e.g. at last week’s DNSO concert), for this kind of music, each of the instruments must have its own character that stands out from the rest, and this was very much the case here – and throughout the orchestra from top to bottom, too. However, deserving special mention… some absolutely stunning oboe playing from  Emanuel Abbühl** (and I’ve heard a lot of very good oboing in my time) and gorgeous molten lava firebird-ing from Gareth Davies, particularly in their Pas de Deux (ok, technically Ivan and the Firebird’s P de D). Sparks flying from Sharon Williams on pic,  contrabassoons like a bad tempered lion waking up after a heavy night at the oasis***, and if I go on I’ll end up listing the whole orchestra. LSO are ace, and so is Gergiev, and so is Stravinsky. And all for £5! It’s times like these I love London.

* Suite (1945 version) in a 2008 Whitehall concert

** Couldn’t see a damn thing from where I was, so assuming all woodwind soloists were as indicated in programme. Please let me know if inaccurate.

*** From the LSO’s entertaining and informative blog

PROM 43: Pärt (St John Passion)

Arvo Pärt began work on his setting of the St John Passion in 1980, the point at which, frustrated by the demands of Soviet officialdom, he finally left his native Estonia and moved his family to Austria. His original and distinctive mature compositional style, known as tintinnabuli, however, was by this time well established, and of which this piece is a prime example. Pärt said “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me.” Passio, of course, is not entirely monophonic, but the musical forces and their deployment are comparatively spare, with nothing extraneous.

Large portions of the text – those narrating the unfolding events – rested on the shoulders of the quartet of voices who together represented the Evangelist. Micaela Haslam (soprano) is familiar from her group Synergy Vocals (regular collaborators with Steve Reich), has an impeccable record in performing and directing the work of contemporary composers, and her performance of Pärt was as perfectly-judged an interpretation as one would expect from an expert in the field… [read more here]

PROM 46: Mosolov, Pärt, Ravel, Scriabin

This concert was a little different from the others in that I didn’t know any of the pieces well, and the composers are not favourites of mine, but all in the I-should-probably-listen-to-more-of-their-stuff-as-I-might-quite-like-it category.

If you want to get an audience’s attention right from the start, Mosolov’s The Foundry is a good way to go about it. Great fun. My companion’s comment was “This piece should be played at every concert – it’s brilliant.” Me, I’m wondering about hire costs, and if I can get it onto the programme for one of the orchestras I play with?

Pärt is definitely a composer I’ve been meaning for a long time to investigate further, but although I very much enjoyed his St John Passion on Tuesday night, his 4th Symphony left me a little cold, although it had some lovely passages, and it seemed most of the audience were in raptures. Will give it another go on iPlayer, but I expect I’ll like it better when it’s complete, and he’s added all the brass and woodwind parts. Or perhaps he wrote them, but the printer ran out of ink halfway, and they thought because it was the UK premiere, nobody would know any better.*

I expect Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is one of the pieces familiar to everyone but me. Frankly, half the notes in the fast passages could have been wrong and I wouldn’t have known (although I’m assuming they weren’t), but it was, again, a lot of fun, and performed with great energy and a fair dollop of showmanship by Bavouzet. From our East Choir seats we had an excellent view of his left hand flying up and down, which was very entertaining, although perhaps made me listen to the music in quite a different way than I would have with no view. Thinking about it, I probably even listen differently to musicians if I’m watching them from the front or back: sitting behind an orchestra makes me feel like I’m a part of it, and with a conductor face-on I watch him or her too closely, catching myself filling my lungs on upbeats, etc., so it’s not unreasonable to suppose different parts of the brain might be activated by the different views. I also noticed for the first time how intricate Salonen’s hand and finger movements are when conducting – interesting, but I don’t necessarily want to be observing and analysing in this way at concerts.

My only prior relationship with Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy was that I once had to sight-read the 1st flute part, and was concentrating too hard on the rather black pages to be thinking about whether I actually liked the work or not. Fortunately, it turns out I do like it. And despite my reservations about watching music being played rather than devoting myself entirely to the auditory experience,  it did also benefit from the visual spectacle of all the speed-blurred fingers and bows, a conductor practically dancing on the podium, and the will-they-won’t-they precarious wobbling of the giant tubular bells whenever the percussion chap gave them a wallop with the hammers (which was frequently and energetically). In fact, the Philharmonia percussion section were particularly impressive throughout the concert, with other stand-outs being the trumpet(s), horns, and cor anglais.

* I feel the need to point out that this is not meant seriously. In the interval, we were making tongue-in-cheek comments about members of the percussion section having an easy job, just hitting a big drum with a stick now and then while the string players had lots of different notes, and got a telling off from a nearby audience member who happened to be a percussionist, righteously indignant about any perceived dissing of his section.

hollander

Image by N Fisher, borrowed from entertainment. timesonline.co.uk

In a second instalment of one-eared opera appreciation, I was at the matinee of Dutchman this weekend, still with the middle ear infection. Fortunately the dizziness has now gone, so I was able to scale the heights of the Upper Slips with no problem. Less fortunately my defective ear was the one facing the stage, but on the other hand, I could hear no snoring from the elderly woman dozing peacefully next to me.

I think she was probably the only person present who was dozing; this was generally an energetic and excitingly-sung and played musical performance which was appreciated greatly by the packed house.

The overture was accompanied visually by a large grey curtain which flapped in the win, had lights and shadows projected on it, and real water trickling down it to represent a storm at sea. This was very effective, although the novelty wore off somewhat after a couple of minutes; however, the excellent music was quite enough to hold one’s attention by itself. The main set, when it appeared, consisted of a big curved piece of riveted metal with portholes, which was both stylish and convincing as a ship (although a little less appropriate for the sewing factory and Daland’s house). The Dutchman’s ship was simply and effectively depicted by a huge shadow which crept across the stage, engulfing the napping Steersman.

I am quite happy to have the sets and costumes updated to the 20th century (somewhere around the middle?), and not bothered at all by the female chorus on rows of sewing machines rather than spinning wheels. I was not so keen on the Dutchman portrait being replaced by a model boat, which Senta carried around with her sometimes. Still, small complaints. It also made a change to see a fairly straightforward interpretation with no incest or gang rape (although some of the sailors appeared to be groping the Steersman inappropriately at one point), and where Senta and the Dutchman actually looked at eachother sometimes during their ‘love’ duet.

I have heard Bryn Terfel sing this role before, so had high expectations. I was not disappointed, as he was in great voice throughout, in complete command of his role and the stage. I thought his singing had some stylistic differences from previous performances and recordings – a little rougher-edged, and less legato – but this was entirely in keeping with Tim Albery’s unromantic, anti-glamorous vision of the character and story. I enjoyed Anja Kampe’s Senta very much; her voice was clear, strong without ever being strident, and seeming quite at ease with this challenging music. I was also impressed with her ability to make Senta a sympathetic character, which is not an easy task. She came across as neither brattish, deranged or a masochistic martyr, but as a young woman with simply a huge surfeit of compassion for those less fortunate. (She even tried to be kind and comforting to the Dutchman’s crew when they briefly turned up.) The pair of them were very convincing both individually and together.

Of the other roles, I thought Hans-Peter König was an excellent Daland. A lovely rich dark bass tone, who could hold his own quite comfortably even at the extreme depths of the register. While opting for a straightforward take on the ‘character’ (such as it is), he managed to make him a real and even believable person. I shall be looking out for him in the future. I fared less well with the tenors. I found Torsten Kerl’s Erik intensely unpleasant on the ear, and John Tessier’s Steersman not much better. However, under the circumstances it seems quite possible that something in the frequency range of the tenor voice happened to set my malfunctioning ear a-rattling, so it may have been not their fault but mine. Kerl didn’t seem to be doing an awful lot of acting when I could see him, whereas at least Tessier entertained with a silly dance and a slapstick fall into a big puddle*.

On the subject of seeing the stage, I do understand when scrimping on a cheapy Upper Slips ticket that it is with restricted view, and I also understand that directors don’t like to have all the key scenes in the middle of the stage. However, I do think that if they’re going to put important arias, duets etc. in the corner where they know some of the audience won’t be able to see, the least they could do is share them out a bit more fairly between the left and right corners! I drew a bit of a short straw this time and missed quite a lot of the action. However, I stood up and leaned over (Health & Safety!) for the ending, and was impressed by Senta jumping and hanging onto the departing ship’s gangplank. It would have been a really great ending if she’d exited in this manner, but she let herself fall down again after about a metre (Health & Safety again?). Everyone else wandered off, and it ended with her falling over, presumably either dead from Unexplained Operatic Death Syndrome or from stabbing herself with the mast of her toy boat.

The orchestra sounded very good under Marc Albrecht’s tight direction and pacey tempi, especially strings and horns, and the large chorus were also highly disciplined and strong.

* Yes, there was a great big puddle on the ship’s deck, in the sewing factory and in Daland’s house. I’m not sure it really added much.

Image borrowed from www.thisislondon.co.uk

Image borrowed from http://www.thisislondon.co.uk

I generally have a preference for tragedy, drama, gloom and doom in opera, so when I was offered a ticket for this light comedy double bill, I thought it would be educational for me. The fact that it had Bryn Terfel in it may also have had something to do with it, as I’ll watch or listen to him in pretty much anything*. I should also perhaps remark that my enjoyment of the two pieces may have been affected by the fact that for the first half I had a standing ticket, and my knees were bloody hurting, whereas for the second half I dived for an empty seat I’d spotted, and could watch in great comfort (from the stalls circle, no less).

So, L’Heure Espagnol. The gauze curtain set the tone, being painted with an enormous pair of boobs (in polka-dot dress), Ã la seaside postcard. The sets and costumes, when revealed, were unremittingly ugly, consisting of as many garish colours and clashing patterns as it is possible to fit in a small box-shaped room. (Yes, the return of the Covent Garden famous wonky box staging – although actually it wasn’t wonky this time.) Around the edge of the box, there was more hideous wallpaper, patterned with chillies; I think these may have been intended either as phallic symbols, or to represent Concepcion being ‘hot’. Or both. Very naff, but I assume intentionally so. The story centres around Concepcion (Christine Rice), a housewife desperate for an extramarital shag while her clockmaker husband (Bonaventura Bottone) is out for the day. A great deal of silly farce ensues, with two potential (but ultimately unsatisfactory) lovers hiding in large clocks, which a third potential (and ultimately successful) lover lugs up and down the stairs to her bedroom for her. Sophisticated humour it wasn’t. However, the nicely-judged acting and characterisation of all cast members managed to make it genuinely funny. Yann Beuron, in particular, had a brilliant sense of comic timing as the daft poet Gonzalve, and Christopher Maltman was perfect as the intellectually-challenged hunk Ramiro, effectively doing an hour-long striptease as he removed an item of clothing every time he had to carry another grandfather clock up the stairs.

Despite the subtle-as-a-sledgehammer story, Ravel’s music was inventive and cleverly nuanced, managing to constantly reference both the actual onstage clocks and the general oppressive feeling of time ticking away without ever becoming tedious. It was performed with liveliness and precision by both the orchestra and singers, but doesn’t really do an awful lot for me. I’d rather hear Andrew Shore sing Wagner (well, duh), and I’ll be looking out for Maltman in future, preferably in a role with a bit more to sing.

Some Moulin Rouge-style dancing girls randomly appeared at the end. I couldn’t quite see the point of this; however, it was one of the funnier moments when one of them produced a lasso and tried to catch Ramiro with it, but instead got it stuck in her own headdress.

Gianni Schicchi began with a big picture of some spaghetti, thus replacing the sin of lust with that of greed, perhaps**. The bad-taste 60s-ish visual theme was continued in the beehive hairdos and ugly dresses of the younger female cast members, but less prominently than earlier. The story centres around a bunch of stuck-up relatives bickering over the will of the universally disliked Uncle Buoso (a silent role, who dies as the opera starts). The comedy was obviously rather darker than in the first half, particularly the frequent manhandling of poor old Buoso’s corpse, including shoving him under the floorboards at one point. The acting was generally decent, but often OTT, and not very consistent. However, the exception was Terfel as Schicchi, who was absolutely hilarious. From the moment he slouched onto stage, dressed as a scruffy car mechanic, complete with cloth cap and fag in his mouth, the opera took a turn for the better. Having (personally) come to identify him with roles like Wotan and the Dutchman, it was also highly entertaining to see him on stage doing a funny dance in his boxers.

Puccini’s music was pleasant, and again, well-played/sung, but didn’t do an awful lot for me. There were some very nice voices in the cast with not an awful lot to do; apart from Terfel, obviously, there was Gwynne Howell (Simone), Elena Zilio (Zita) and Henry Waddington (criminally under-used as Spinelloccio). The cheese-feast O Mio Babbino Caro is the most well-known ‘hit’ from this opera, and was actually sung really beautifully by Dina Kuznetsova – possibly the only genuinely moving moment of the evening. All voices on stage sounded pleasant, in fact, apart from the horrid little brat that turned up to irritate now and then.

Overall, yes, I did enjoy the performances. However, that should be taken in context, as I’ve yet to go to an opera and not enjoy it. And no, I’m not a convert to musical comedy. Yet.

* Except that ghastly crossover drivel he sometimes sings.

** I didn’t think of that myself; Simon T said it first.

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.

Image borrowed from ROH website

Image borrowed from http://www.roh.org.uk

A long one, but then, it’s a long opera…

This has been one of my favourite operas for as long as I’ve actually had an interest in opera, so it was a very big event to see it live. Of course, it’s my second time, the ENO having staged it last year – a performance which made a massive impression on me, and inspired much critical debate – unfortunately before I’d taken it into my head to start writing reviews. As usual, I made a particular effort to avoid reading anything about this one beforehand, hoping that it would surprise me, and this was certainly the case, in both the positive and negative sense.

Before the opera started, I found myself scrutinising the drop curtain, which was painted with a swirl of what were intended to look like mathematical formulae, to see if they were actually real formulae or not. I didn’t spot any that made grammatical sense, but at least it was something to do while waiting. The Norns’ scene I found rather lifeless and lacking in enthusiasm, taking place in front of said drop curtain and involving them fidgeting around with some glowing red string, although I did particularly like the voice of the 3rd Norn (Marina Poplavskaya, from the ROH’s Young Artists Programme). Towards the end of the scene, their glowing string seemed to be being yanked back through the doorway they came in from, so a little tug-of-war ensued (but fortunately the director resisted the temptation to have them all fall over in a heap when the rope broke).

On Brunnhilde’s rock, or rather, by Brunnhilde’s slab, Lisa Gasteen sounded great from the start, but unfortunately her Siegfried, John Treleaven, did not, having rather a passing relation with the notes, and indicating that this performance was going to be something of a curate’s egg. I also thought it detracted from the emotion of the farewells to have Siegfried spending most of the time attaching ropes to the floor. (I assume this was intended to represent something important, and I’d appreciate it if someone would tell me what it was.) Brunnhilde’s declaration of the strength and bravery of her horse elicited sniggers from rather a lot of the audience; although we’d seen the Valkyries running round with their horse skulls before, it just semmed particularly comical here, and one just wanted to say “Sorry luv, that horse is seriously past it. He ain’t going anywhere”. I did like the staging of the Rhein journey, though. Like the ENO last year, video projection was used, but with The Slab rotating and taking various orientations to become hill, raft, etc., which was very effective. Fortunately John Treleaven was not required to mime surfing (as Richard Berkeley-Steele was at the ENO) but he still looked rather uncomfortable at times, particularly when the slab tilted alarmingly and he (presumbaly intentionally) lost his footing and slid down it on his arse. Still, lovely water effects.

Meanwhile, the Gibichungs were sitting around in their hall, which was designed to resemble a large version of the silver Rubik’s Cube tarnhelm used by this production. I thought the tarnhelm looked pretty silly, but the look worked better as a set. I interpret the hall/tarnhelm link as representing the illusions perpetrated by the Gibichungs, where no-one is as they seem. The fact that it wobbled when touched perhaps shows the instability of illusions? As for the trio themselves, yes, I know it’s Wagner, so by law we must have incest, but this seemed to me a case of one-upmanship. Siegmund/Sieglinde incest is actually in the original story, as is Wotan/Erda; Wotan/Brunnhilde implications are now de rigeur, and Gunther/Gutrune fairly common, and the ENO had Hagen fantasising about Gutrune. The ROH took it that bit further, with Gutrune portrayed as a nympho who could barely keep her hands off either of her brothers (nor they off her), and included some mild bondage, plus Hagen playing at strangling Gutrune with a bit of red ribbon. That, I could have done without. In fact, when Siegfried turned up and gave his horse skull to Hagen (“noblest steed” etc. – cue more audience giggles), by the way Gutrune took it off him and scurried off, it looked to me as if, having got bored of shagging her brothers, she now fancied trying a horse instead. Meanwhile, Gunther looked like he regretted inviting Siegfried to treat the place as his own when he started walking around on the sofa like a lout.

Peter Coleman-Wright (as Gunther) had a very pleasant voice indeed, although I found his acting unconvincing; Gutrune was more the other way round. I’m a particular fan of evil basses, and had my doubts about John Tomlinson as Hagen, as it’s such an great role, and I can’t say his voice has ever done much for me before. However, I’m glad to say he actually sang it reasonably strongly, hitting some jolly good low notes. I really disliked his interpretation of the character, but one doesn’t know how much of it was him and how much the director’s input. There was more comedy in store, when – or so it looked like from up on the balcony – Hagen mixed Gunther and Siegfried’s blood in a cocktail shaker, complete with ice cubes, before handing it back to them to drink. (Why not go the whole hog and offer them Worcester Sauce or Tabasco to put in it?) Hagen’s watch, which finishes the act, is a lovely piece of music, which Tomlinson bludgeoned. In addition, his removing of his jacket slightly alarmed us up in the balcony, as at the ENO last year, Hagen (Gidon Saks) memorably stripped down to his boxers at this point, and I would really rather not see Mr Tomlinson do the same. Fortunately it was just the jacket.

The Brunnhilde/Waltraute scene which followed was beautifully sung and acted (with Mihoko Fujimura as Waltraute; absolutely lovely voice, dark, soft-edged but with serious power). It was unfortunate that they appeared to be in the Gibichung hall, as the set hadn’t changed during the ample scene-change music, but never mind, it worked. Gunther and Siegfried turned up together, with Gunther mutely manhandling Brunnhilde while Siegfried stood nearby, bellowing with the stupid box on his head. This did not work.

Act Two began with Hagen having more fun with autoerotic asphyxiation (which, again, I could really have done without) before dad turns up in a floating boat. The scene was ok, but so much weaker than the fantastic ENO version (which had Andrew Shore as Alberich). Tomlinson did some good bellowing to summon the vassals to arms, but unfortunately they were like a camp version of the Men In Black, didn’t have any weapons, and were not remotely scary. They did have postmodern black plastic viking helmets, but unfortunately these made them look like a Batman convention. To be fair, they did sound good, though. To the mirrored Gibichung hall had been added full-size gold statues of naked Donner, Froh (nice arse), Fricka (ram’s head?) and Freia, which were wheeled around and worshipped as needed. Later, an extra-big statue of Wotan appeared too, but he wasn’t naked (Wotan just has to have a cloak, ok?) and he didn’t look like Bryn Terfel, either. He had a spear, which Hagen later snapped off for swearing oaths on. (I took this to be a symbol of castration, but then remembered that Wotan’s already been emasculated by Siegfried smashing his spear in the last episode. Can one be castrated twice?) From her entrance, for the rest of the act the stage was entirely commanded by Gasteen, by turns dispirited, horrified, despairing, withering, and boiling with rage. When she swore vengeance it was terrifying. The second most important participant towards the end of the act was the orchestra, which despite a slightly weak start, had by this time really got it together and were a true force to be reckoned with.

The orchestra also sounded particularly fine in Act 3, with some beautiful woodwind solos in the forest, and for the most part, spot-on brass. The pseudo-mathematical formulae on the drop curtain were overlaid with a galactic spiral, and the formulae started to disintegrate, which was a very clever effect. The Rheinmaidens were winsome, and Siegfried almost likeable for a while. The set for this was surprisingly old-school: muddy riverbank, dead tree, etc., making a surprising change from the abstractions of earlier. The Rheinmaidens left behind a collection of significant objects, but from the balcony we couldn’t tell what they were, apart from the sword and spear. One object looked like a rugby ball, and another like a tin of Pringles (this confirmed later, when Hagen appeared to pop the lid and offer Siegfried some crisps – or at least, that’s what it looked like to me). The staging of Siegfried’s death was pretty standard, although I was surprised that he didn’t bleed at all after being stabbed with a spear. (On reflection, this probably just meant that the blood-bag had failed to burst. Note to crew: don’t use extra-strong condoms for blood-bags next time.) Having said that, he also didn’t die at the normal time, but was still staggering about for half of his own funeral march, crawling up a gangplank, and eventually falling off it with a hefty clump. This did not work well. When the hunting party returned, the men shuffled around looking uncomfortable while the Gibichungs argued. Hagen’s nasty bit of red ribbon came out one more time, so he could strangle Gunther (for real, this time), which I really hope he wasn’t enjoying too much. However, soon fantastic Gasteen was back for the finale, involving more cool water projections and lots of real fire (hurrah!) The statues of the gods were hoiked up on ropes, hanged in effigy, then dropped into the flames, apart from the Wotan statue, which was laid down for Brunnhilde to sing to (very touchingly, actually). She and the orchestra were superb, and the ending was visually stunning.

P.S.
There’s one effect I particularly noticed, but I’ve forgotten at what point it was. There was a projection of a rotating tarnhelm-cube with another inside it. It looked good as it was, but if they had just added extra edges between the inner and outer cubes, it would have made a perfect projection of a tesseract, which contains the implication of a fourth spatial dimension, and so could be a wonderful analogy for the tarnhelm’s power to move people instantly between locations.